All the Animals in My Poems Go into the Ark
Complete Poems, by Jon Silkin.
Complete Poems, by R.F. Langley.
A C.H. Sisson Reader, edited by Charlie Louth and Patrick McGuinness.
As founding editor of Stand Magazine — which, associated with the University of Leeds, still represents an important Northern contribution to the English poetry and short prose scene — Jon Silkin used to scribble his own verse on the back of submitted poems. Those, that is, whose authors failed to include the all-important Stamped Addressed Envelope. (The SAE has always been, I suppose, a gesture of status-confirming humility — you provide the editor with all necessary postage, then your spurned works return in an envelope on which you’ve written your own name, almost as if you’ve rejected yourself; nowadays, of course, there’s often a website telling you “How to Submit.”) The poems Silkin wrote over others’ were biblically-tinged in cadence and seriousness; left-wing-political; intrigued by man’s relationship to nature, and, not quite the same thing, man as an instance of nature. Here is “Orion and the Spiders,” one of “Three Poems to Do with Healing,” from a posthumous collection he wished to entitle Making a Republic:
We hunt the squealing mouse.But we gasp at the ocelot, mostly she’s grey, tinged with fawnin naked ovals, her lovely glistening polar underside.Who would fire into her belly? Who?
Silkin’s is nature red in tooth and claw, but also hopefully glimpsed as an egalitarian utopia. (The influence of D.H. Lawrence is evident here — “We foul / The stones we have sprung from / That we share this modest space with, / Brutishly refined / In plucked skirts, and stiff pants” — as is the Quaker folk-painter Edward Hicks, whose Peaceable Kingdom provided a book title and an idea to live and write by; Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner’s introduction suggests an ecopoet ahead of his time.) Born in London in 1930, and of Lithuanian Jewish stock, Silkin wrote a monograph on the Jewish WWI poet Isaac Rosenberg, and a famously microscopic close reading, requoted at length by Christopher Ricks, of Geoffrey Hill’s “September Song,” that acknowledged masterpiece — if too clever-clever, too Silkin-anticipating? — of Holocaust elegy. So it’s not surprising that he was troubled by the influence of T.S. Eliot on his own work. (“Mister Eliot was a Jew-hater,” says the speaker of “A woman from Giannedes,” previously unpublished.) Our political beliefs, our deeply held convictions about who we are, don’t always coincide with the opinions of those who creatively inspire us.
But to return to how Silkin wrote, rather than what, for I realize the American reader might be under the impression that he could only write all over other people’s poems: a demented fetishist driven to repeat within the creative act the literary critic’s passive-aggressive lunge for dominance. In fact, he was an omnicompositionalist who, the introduction tells us, “wrote everywhere,” a double-sided phrase that links Silkin’s global travels with his habit of writing on all possible surfaces, envelopes and letters as well as other people’s poems. On page lxxxv (!) of Glover and Jenner’s heroically and at times stiflingly meticulous introduction, we find this explanation:
Even in lengthy poems with a background (or foreground) story he couldn’t resist letting language “just happen.” The temptation to “slow down,” to let interpenetrating metaphors and similes do what they want, was something he either enjoyed successfully or (depending on the reader’s point of view) failed to control. Perhaps he did not appreciate that intense image-making could itself tell stories and explore action.
“Enjoyed successfully” nicely captures how, experimenting with language, the ambitious poet may also be indulging himself. Yet this introduction too often replaces the literary fact (the poems on the page; their style and value) with the literary life. Sure, for Silkin, “writing and publishing were not an adjunct to a ‘normal’ life; they were life” — and it’s important, if dispiriting, to understand how networks contribute to a poet’s reputation. But Glover and Jenner seem to argue at points that because Silkin always was writing, because he did so much as an editor, and published his verse with such frequency in so many places (the magazine publications preceding each collection are exhaustively listed), and knew so many people, especially when he broke into America — that, because of all this, he must be a major poet. Swathes of unpublished work are collected here, with alternative versions of poems, and an extensive bibliography of Silkin’s published articles. (Of the previously unpublished poems, my favorites are “From the inside of the wilderness,” “Going On,” a smack at Thom Gunn, and “Choosing” — the poem on page 219; there is another with the same title on page 822 — which gives both the discrete and the processual its due; acknowledges in the erotic the presence of cognition; and discovers quickly something marvelous within the word “completely”: “ ‘Love’ I said / ‘Is ... ’ You completely / Leaned forward, and kissed me / As if you were naked.”)
A massively impressive editorial achievement, is this nine-hundred-page tome the best way to experience Silkin as a poet? A poet who wrote too many poems, and also, perhaps, wrote his poems too much; an accretive process, confirmed and extended by the editors — I certainly don’t approve of the disfiguring of poems on the page with endnote markers. The image that suggests itself is an all-inclusive ark, because of the first poem, or “Prologue,” of Silkin’s true debut, The Peaceable Kingdom:
All the animals in my poems go into the arkThe human beings walk in the great darkThe bad dark and the good dark. They walkShivering under the small lamp lightAnd the road has two ways to go and the humans none.
The other two stanzas also begin with “the animals in my poems go into the ark.” Repetition is important to Silkin (I have a soft spot for his lines about “love” in which that ineffectual ultimate word bumpily and beautifully repeats, heading nowhere) and is key to his curious mixture of active urging of language and passive wondering at its restlessness. The poet as both editor and anti-editor of himself — Silkin treating Silkin both as he treats others (for example, those hapless contributors to Stand) and also differently, as someone special. A refrain, or a repeated word like dark — Milton’s Samson Agonistes lurks behind this seeming nursery rhyme — might parse either as a restatement of the poet’s ordering power or an abdication of it. The words, stripped, apparently, of authorial control, brilliantly or hollowly self-replicate.
The Peaceable Kingdom also features Silkin’s most famous poem, “Death of a Son” — a more simply understandable and touching elegy, the rhyming epigraph tells us, for a child “who died in a mental hospital aged one.” The rhyme of title and epigraph, “son” and “one,” is the first intimation this is no straightforwardly anecdotal poem, even though the awful incident can be retrieved from its texture without too much trouble:
Something has ceased to come along with me.Something like a person: something very like one.And there was no nobility in itOr anything like that.
A scornful start. In fact this could function as a whole poem, a statement of elegiac seriousness akin to Hill’s. The icily impersonal pronoun “it” — as if the child who never became a person were turned, cruelly, into a thing — is reminiscent of Marianne Moore’s shortened version of “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it.” Yet she does continue: “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.” And Silkin’s poem also goes forth, writing itself onward, refusing to be laconically realist and instead allowing, as elsewhere, the language to do its own thing, to live.
The form is repeated throughout his first collection — a diamond-shaped four-line stanza, which Silkin breaks with at the very end:
He turned over on his side with his one year
Red as a wound
He turned over as if he could be sorry for this
And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones,
and he died.
The repetition is more than a repetition of Eliot’s Ash Wednesday — “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn” — and the refusal to cauterize into fact a complex experience also recalls Rosenberg, in whom “the language-inducing process” (this is Silkin in Out of Battle, his monograph on WWI poets) understands the “full and proper expression” of an idea as inseparable from “its sensuous ramification — the poetry itself.”
It isn’t right to judge a poet simply by their popular, well-known, even radio-friendly verse. But Silkin wrote so much that peters out in try-hard scrimmage; he stage-manages, perversely amplifies. His voyeurism in the face of linguistic drift might read as self-regarding, for could authentic self-suspicion put forth so unendingly? The poem “A self-directing psalm” compares to “an aphid that cannot let itself be destroyed” the light in a summer night’s sky, which is also “unlike the burned prisoners in a camp,” and then the vertiginous phrase “like, and not like” takes us to “the journey of Abraham with Isaac.” A rich nexus, then, in Rosenberg’s vein. But though “Death of a Son” was right to go on, press through, continuance isn’t always heroic. Silkin may begin compellingly: “Many liberals don’t just / Make love, they first ask each other.” But this poem, “Respectabilities” — from The Re-ordering of the Stones, which I see I’ve dog-eared less than any other section of this book, and is crammed with these dull titles — just doesn’t know when, or how, to stop. “All men are treated / With such perception as stones / Get into subjection to / Their shaper”: the judged thrill of each line-ending provides the poet with a sufficing hit, no doubt, of electrifying clarification the reader cannot share.
I believe the problem lies precisely with Silkin’s omnicompetence, his facility, his possession of both an elaborative and compressive gift. This second often recalls Hill in its insistence on historical time and the civic attentiveness of the poet capable of honed micro-miracles of attention. Of Jews taken by train through the snow to concentration camps: “Some vomit, softly, in lumps, falling past the edge / of a wagon. Prayers made. None bidding us safe conduct. / In a woman’s back / the butt’s thud.” Ghastly facts, shaped: “some” hesitates harshly between describing vomit or (dehumanized) people; there is the little rhythmic shift in that line, and the reversed syntax at the end. “Bruised” reveals the influence, on the “lapidary poems” of The Psalms with Their Spoils, of another Northern poet, Basil Bunting, whose clenched and tender sadism deepens wonderfully here:
Lapidary words: for it is hardto chisel stone; and to detainthe reader at the tombsoftened by moss, and the lichen’s bruised studsof gold, is not seemly.You, too, would not wantto take from the wanderergrazing the mild squares of Londonhis time you now bear.There’s no more; the lichen’s nail innocentlyfeeds its pointinto the child’s burying place.— Lapidary Words
“The lichen’s nail” is both tender moss and nature’s chisel. A tomb is softened, ruralized, its hard truth disguised by its verdure; the final stanza complicates a dual vision of the lichen as both naive growth and long-standing destroyer. How strange it is to read this poem, with its statement about the limited attention of the reader, and how it mustn’t be abused, alongside Silkin’s more interminable verse!
R.F. Langley wrote and published sparingly. A mystique attaches to poets of this kind — really, they are super-poets, repeating and reinforcing on a career level the standard value-logic of lyric verse: drastically fewer words than in any other literary form, but each, for that reason, precious. (And they seem so uncareerist — Langley taught English and art history to schoolchildren before retiring to the Suffolk countryside — so unforcing of their rare lovely bursts of inspiration; they have grown up, lived well, in a wider world.) Educated at Cambridge, Langley is linked with the school of poetry named for that university, but while his verse does move in unobvious ways, fusing wittily (modern complexities are assumed) mysteriously different registers, there remains the feeling of — he differs here from his friend J.H. Prynne, who read at his memorial service — an individual mind making sense of its surroundings.
That said, simple sense can’t always be made. A reductive immediacy is complicated, perception combining with, flooded by, intellection; Jeremy Noel-Tod, the editor of this wonderful Complete Poems, has argued persuasively that they “shrink interestingly from the single, arrogating point of view, the self-possessed lyric ‘I’. You, I, he, she, we, it are liable to take each other’s place without warning.” Langley’s sentences fragment, they are crisp, multifarious, hastened by internal rhymes, sometimes wordplay:
The warm sun in some June. This June.Both Junes. Take now and make a then.A room. A roomy workshop. Elderflowers.Forget the scent. Here is a carpenter,singing. It is a hymn.— From The Ecstasy InventoriesA wineglass of water onthe windowsill where it willcatch the light. Now be quietwhile I think. And groan. And blink.— From Still Life with WineglassThe beetle runs into the future. He takesto his heels in an action so frantic itsflicker seems to possess the slowness of deepwater. He has been green. He will be so yet.— From Blues for Titania
The final quotation enlarges the phrasing of Langley’s introductory “Note,” first published in 1994, where running becomes a metaphor less for conscious composition than for the eerie volition of poems themselves: “Juan Fernandez,” he says, “ran ahead of me well, feeling fit, keeping me surprised.... I don’t write many poems, so each one has to be able to keep running, faster than I can, for as long as possible.” The slow flicker of that weightily frantic beetle also evokes Langley’s style, which has a way of sounding at once both urgent and curiously unurgent. A breathy swiftness of utterance — or is this silent and self-directed speech, a rapid mental flusker? — doesn’t prevent more sculptured effects. The poet frames, underlines, points things out.
Given Langley’s profession I do catch the teacher’s accent in these lines, though the bad word “didactic” isn’t relevant, not in the least. I also wonder how quickly, and with what emphasis, he should be read. The shaping is undeniable, as a duration is lifted out of the tingling instant and allowed to expand:
The wineglass stands fast in agale of sunlight, where there isone undamaged thistle seedcaught on its rim, moving itslong filaments through blue toorange, slowly exploringthe glorious furniture.— From Still Life with Wineglass
“Where” and “its” do much of the work here; these are subtle ligatures, intimate and unobtrusive. Perception is renovated and a field of force — Langley’s own phrase, which I quote later — is acknowledged. Here the sentence elongates under scrutiny and the recognitions of the poet’s wonderfully attentive ear. (Of its umpteen delicacies I would pick out the interaction of “stands fast” and “thistle,” which ever so gently quashes that sandwiching st sound; also the lingering Keatsian richness of “caught,” “long,” “orange,” “exploring,” and “glorious.”)
In this “Still Life” the interest in color is indeed painterly, and those “filaments” turn the thistle seed into a paintbrush moving along the palette or canvas. (These lines also recall Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which reaches a crescendo with the word “orange,” and has the same lightly lineated look on the page.) As Langley writes in his aforementioned note, “every brushstroke changes the picture. If it’s crimson it intensifies all the greens and there’s the new problem in how to respond to that.” In discussing him as both an experimentally vagarious and an immediately exciting poet, the parallel that suggests itself is with Howard Hodgkin, whose paintings seem abstract but, he insists, are actually representational — one should lift, as out of a magic-eye poster, the emotional situation of two lovers in embrace out of swoops of luscious color.
Langley extends a strand of pictorial writing (he’s particularly fond of the word, and color tone, “cream”) that develops out of the poet’s journal, expresses a fascination with the overlap of casual prose with verse artistry, and is turned into publishable set-pieces by John Ruskin before it marvelously matures in the neglected notebooks of that queasily and deliciously Victorian-modern genius, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Langley’s own Journals were published in 2006 by Shearsman, and extracts previously appeared in PN Review; these are private writings, “necessarily impromptu,” says Langley, which have yet reached an audience through an intelligently understanding magazine, and are pitched — like Hopkins’s supposedly private jottings — at an understanding reader. In his preface, Langley mentions,
a series of journals that I have been keeping since the 1970s. During the years they cover my parents have died, I have been divorced and remarried, our two children have been born and have grown up, found jobs, left home.
Yet none of this is mentioned in the journals, which “are not the sort of journals that directly confront such things.” So do they indirectly confront them, in their energized minute descriptions of birds, beasts, and flowers, so close to those of his verse, but also apprehending of the propensities and potentialities of prose? In August 1992: “So long since I wrote. A year. Who cares? What then? Little. Not really any better. No change after the journeying.” Yet elsewhere those short sentences are, as in the verse, molecular wonders — “small flints crunch”; “the bent leaves are a sight I see”; “small flies tickle” — alert, like Ruskin and Hopkins, to the question of how, in a modern disenchanted universe, to “string all this together.” December 25, 1970: “No sound of the snow except when you stand by bits of the hedge where oak leaves are thick, golden fawn, dry as chapattis, and broken like them, rather than torn, at their edges.”
Here the oak, that most English of trees, is compared to an Indian flatbread — an ingenious and even cosmopolitan connection. As Homa Khaleeli writes in The Guardian, although Indian restaurants in England “multiplied in the 1950s and 60s to feed the newly arrived south Asian factory workers, their boom time only begun in the 70s, when they adapted their menus for a working-class, white clientele.” So the journal observation is very much of its moment; and if I’ve lingered overlong on a tiny detail — race isn’t one of Langley’s subjects — it’s because there does seem to be a cultural idea behind his community of particular details, sometimes harshly separate, and vanishing, but elsewhere unified. Langley also takes, I think, not only from nursery rhyme but also from Hopkins, his everyman “Jack,” who first appears as “Man Jack” in Twelve Poems and later in a verse-sequence from the Collected Poems: “Jack built himself a house to hide in and / take stock”; “Jack meets / me and we go to see what we must do”; “There’s Jack. / A figure I imagine / I can see far off in a / dark library.” And in “Tom Thumb”:
We should accept the obvious facts of physics.The world is made entirely of particles infields of force. Of course. Tell it to Jack. Except itdoesn’t seem to be enough tonight. Not becausehe’s had his supper and the upper regions arecerulean, as they have been each eveningsince the rain.
This perspective isn’t anti-scientific, but it does insist on the more than material, on a sense of universal being evasive of empirical explanation. “Tell it to Jack” is interesting, because the more clearly impatient “Tell that to Jack” — where Jack would represent the stalwart resister of such unspiritual blockheadedness — is the expected phrase. “It,” which repeats, shows Langley playing with pronouns again, and it occurs to me (returning here to Noel-Tod’s remark, that in his poetry “You, I, he, she, we, it are liable to take each other’s place without warning”) that not just an atomic universe but an atomized society is apprehended with sensitivity in his verse.
Langley’s style (those short sentences; the darting doubt; recognition of beauty; the desire, as he puts it in “Tom Thumb,” to “stop taking stock, and listen”) would, then, be a style of cultural enquiry, into how disparate minds could possibly meet, or at least communicate. This is why, in that poem, Jack is said to have
involved himself in howthe gnats above the chimney shared their worryingtogether, working out their troubles in a crowd.They must have done that every summer, all my life.Jack says he never saw them doing it till now.
Langley searches for, and postulates, uncommon experiences that may yet be held in common: “We leave unachieved in the / summer dusk. There was no / need for you rather than me”; “It is a common experience to come upon a / pale, glittering house set far back across / a meadow. It is certainly inside you.” “The Gorgoneion,” named for a protective and horrifying pendant with a gorgon’s head on it, is rightly compared by Noel-Tod with Larkin’s “Aubade.” Yet Larkin describes of the pre-dawn hours a state of total isolation from both other people and the religious myths that once enlivened and made life meaningful. He speaks out of an Englishness entirely sure of the hard bare facts of the matter denied by the weak, and skeptical of the suggestion that life among others could evince its own joyousness. Langley begins in the same darkness, but unlike Larkin he doesn’t speak on behalf of a presumed “we,” a cultural grouping that apparently shares the poet’s opinions, and yet with whom he could never belong. He moves, instead, uncertain yet responsive, from “you” to “someone”:
Once more the menace of the smallhours and of coming to light and ofeach sharper complication. There wasa loosening which let much neglecteddetail out of the dark. You can’t lookaway once it’s started to move. This.Must. And so must this. In bitter littlefrills and hitches. About in a suspicioustwiddle are the tips of someone’s tenfingers which could, sometime, touchmine.
Larkin’s poem is surer and for that reason the more spectacular. It knows what it knows. “I know / the sort of thing,” says Langley, less convincingly, and more likeably. His isolato acknowledges, yet is skeptical of, his suffering. (Does a differently recognizable, unmelodramatic English voice lurk within these lines, saying tersely: “Mustn’t complain”?) The poem cannot utterly embrace disaster given its saving recognition of the presence, the similitude in pain, of others: a both threatening and redemptive “touch.” It ends: “a hand is laid down and / another turns itself upward to be clasped.”
To say that C.H. Sisson is an “unfashionable” poet, as Charlie Louth and Patrick McGuinness do several times in their introduction to the new Reader, is to refuse the vulgar media criterion of, God help us, “relatability” — though the lucid back note does say that, published on the centenary of his birth, this book restores to us a writer who “speaks with clarity to the twenty-first century reader’s expectations and discontents.” Sisson is both different to us, then, and the same. A modernist conservative (“Toryism as defined by Johnson,” he writes, “has almost always been a doctrine of opposition, and so it will remain”) whose politics, in shrewdly sculpted essays on not just verse but culture more broadly, reveals a — the editors again — “specifically English suspicion of the grand scheme, the total plan, a willingness to work with what is fallen and imperfect.”
Reading the prose collected here alongside the verse, I found myself repeatedly underlining effects of style, where patrician tonalities are renewed by a constant, conscious liveliness — Sisson remarks the priority of “rhythm” in verse, and understands its value in prose, too. On the style of Wyndham Lewis, whose work “is so intensely patterned that, starting from almost any sentence chosen at random, one could start an explanation which would not stop short of the completed oeuvre”:
Not unrelated to the difficulties of using speech as the medium of political philosophy are the difficulties arising from those aspects of Lewis’s writing which are called his personality. Not even Ben Jonson himself emitted a more obsessive penumbra. One is the presence of mannerisms, not unrelated to art, apparently as compulsive as the habit a woman might have of screwing up her handkerchief, or a swallow has of building, repeatedly, a certain sort of nest.
I’m afraid this is one of those hackneyed moments where the critic, me, says of the poet-critic writing of another — a skein of commentary tough to acknowledge without wincing — that he may as well be talking about himself. (Perhaps style is the outward struggle of our egotism, a hope that, in talking of ourselves, we may say with surety real things of others, too.) In Sisson’s prose the mannerisms we might designate reductively, for the moment, “middle-class English,” establish a tonal music: it reminds me of reading through and being ravished by the nature descriptions of Hopkins, wishing absent from his journals words like “delightfully,” but coming to accept these Victorian social tics as inextricable features of his prose fabric, no less than his identity. The equivalents in Sisson may even be load-bearing.
The first sentence quoted is instantly donnish: “not unrelated to” has, like the querying of the label “personality,” its air of fussy specification — not for Sisson, the inadvertence or vulgarity of direct statement. Yet there follows the contrarily forthright assumption that in discussing Lewis’s prose along these lines, Ben Jonson is the benchmark; “himself,” which bridges unobtrusively the style and the man; and that self-consciously relished, and even overwritten close: does “obsessive” really belong, there, before “penumbra”? Stymied by Sisson’s tortuousness, in my first reading of this passage I mistook the next clause for “One is in the presence of.” In the presence of whom, I wondered — royalty? No one uses “one” quite like Sisson, and he appeared here to insist on proper respect before a figure of authority, on reading as an activation of exquisite proprieties. But I had in fact supplied — reading with the skimming eye, alas, not the hearing ear — the missing word in, which he didn’t write.
“One” actually refers back to the “difficulties” arisen from “aspects of Lewis’s writing.” I missed this because of the intervening sentence about Jonson, for Sisson’s gliding spoken drift doesn’t pause to place that aside in parentheses. “Mannerisms” — though his own style makes the case for them — is possibly pejorative, so there’s need of arch nuance: “not unrelated to art.” “Apparently” is a social word, a tic of speech, which masks a depth/surface judgment about the value of Lewis’s writing, and “compulsive” (pejorative again) is gradually redeemed, if not by the woman screwing up her handkerchief, then by the swallow “building, repeatedly” (another comma-ruffle!) its true nest. If there is a complexity to Sisson’s politics, so difficult to pin down, because of its coarse coding today but also his own elusiveness, it must inhere in, inhabit, his curated style.
At least this is what I would like to believe, for if one tots up more simply the grumpy propositions a less sympathetic figure emerges. I’ve starred with my pencil Sisson’s various objections: to our “age,” in which “a certain sloppiness goes into the general conception of art, and nowhere more than in Anglo-Saxondom,” and “fashions now well up from the lower orders, happily supplied with money to indulge their fancy in a world of mass-produced gew-gaws”; to “that rubbish of imaginary rights which are conceived of as a sort of metaphysical property of each individual”; and all in all “the great obligatory truths of the left, which all decent people” — you can hear the sneer — “take without choking: put compendiously, a belief in the harmony of democracy, large-scale organization, and individual self-expression.” He confronts “the idiotic dogmatist of the permissive,” thinks “the word ‘democracy’ is now so full of air that it is about to burst,” and claims that the “ease of technology will, in any case, in the end produce a race of diminishing consciousness, for whom the only persuasion is by force.” He describes Edward Thomas’s wife and children, with a typically coat-trailing remark, as among the “natural objects” that tutored him, and there is an essay here praising the work of Montgomery Belgion, the anti-Semitic essayist whose opinions, published in The Criterion, have damaged the reputation of T.S. Eliot and were indeed taken by some commentators for those of Eliot himself. You don’t want to believe Sisson is a crypto-fascist — “this brand of conservative cultural politics ... does not tarry with the radical right,” insist Louth and McGuinness — but in this case he doesn’t do himself any favors.
He is also, however, anti-economistic, a now attractive position: an excerpt from The Case of Walter Bagehot makes the case against the “shadow republic” of high finance. It’s unsurprising that previously, yes, “unfashionable” writers like Sisson and F.R. Leavis now seem possible spokespeople: the humanities feel the need of self-defense, and imagination-confounding wealth disparities reveal a society drastically in need of restructuring. We want something else, something better, but seem to have pledged ourselves, and those who theorize on behalf of culture, quality, and, in short, art — who have defended the sensibility of, often, an unhappy few against the bean-counters and their death of a thousand cuts — tend to arrive with a good deal of reactionary baggage in tow. For if you don’t believe in capital, what form of (intangible, non-empirical, snobby) currency do you endorse? Fine, Sisson is reactionary, but can we, intent on preserving, through our attentions to literature, the radical thought of past ages, be so sure that the spirit of the age, iPhone in hand, doesn’t understand us, too, as culturally conservative?
Many who, in a more rational system,Would be thought mad if they behaved as they do in this oneAre obsessed by the more insidious forms of property:They buy and sell merchandise they will never see,Hawking among Wren’s churches, and, if they say their prayers,Say them, without a doubt, to stocks and shares.
That’s “The London Zoo,” a longish poem published in 1961 but still absolutely on the money in its jibes at economic “rationality” and the unquestioning faith in funds that turn out, to the detriment of all but the super-rich, to not exist. One might not agree with Sisson that the church provides any longer an intact alternative, but it’s hard to read this variously dated and hyper-relevant, both mannered and scorchingly immediate, poem without longing for the return to the poetic scene of full-blown (rather than knowingly compromised, complicit, self-deprecating) satire:
Out on the platform like money from a cashier’s shovel
The responsible people fall at the end of their travel.
Some are indignant that their well-known faces
Are not accepted instead of railway passes;
Others faithfully produce the card by which the authorities
Regulate the movement of animals in great cities.
With growing consciousness of important function
Each man sets out for where he is admired most,
The one room in London where everything is arranged
To enlarge his importance and deaden his senses.
The secretary who awaits him has corrected her bosom;
His papers are in the disorder he has chosen.
Anxieties enough to blot out consciousness
Are waiting satisfactorily on his desk.
The influence of Eliot and The Waste Land (a poem, writes Sisson, healing the pejorative again, of “decisive novelty”) is strong here in both content and form; couplets clobberingly arrive, others are strangled in the cradle, as Pound did with “The Fire Sermon.” But the key word is “consciousness,” which occurs twice: first as a type of bad self-regard, and then as a given, obscured by false anxieties. It’s a concept Sisson returns to in both verse and criticism. For him, “consciousness — as is not perhaps widely understood — is purely traditional,” a “product of history.” It is what anchors us in time and place and answers to the more parochial side of the poet’s thinking: “You cannot be Plato in Bechuanaland or George Herbert in Connecticut,” he says, sounding, himself, weirdly like Wallace Stevens. But Sisson also requires of poetry that it should not be willful or calculated, and explains his turn to translation as a defense against “the embarrassing growth of the area of consciousness” that imperils original creation. He quotes, and appears to agree with, Shelley’s revolutionary contention (you couldn’t, on first glance, imagine two thinkers or writers so far apart) that poetry “is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connexion with the consciousness or will.” “So much,” remarks Sisson drolly, “for recording that moment when Philip Larkin got up for a piss”; and you could argue that his baffled talk of “consciousness” represents only a cripplingly English self-consciousness trying to outwit its own hampering borders, and a weapon to be used, in this case, against the “journalistic” verse he happens to dislike. (He does sound like Larkin, whatever he claims: “Now I am forty I must lick my bruises / What has been suffered cannot be repaired / I have chosen what whoever grows up chooses / A sickening garbage that could not be shared.”) But Sisson also follows Shelley to the point of rejecting conventional notions of identity, and writes in “My Life and Times”:
So damn the individual touchOf which the critics make so much;Remember that the human raceGrins more or less in every face.
Characteristically acid — “more or less” — these lines nevertheless present a poetics, and an ethics, heartening in its confusions. Not a tepid universalism but an agonized thinking of individuals as centerless extrusions from different places, soiled by alternative parishes with the dirt of selfhood.
Despite a few early squibs, Sisson really began writing verse while serving in India during WWII, and there’s a relevant poem here, “In Time of Famine: Bengal,” about, apparently, a starving beggar-child:
I do not say this childThis child with grey mudPlastering her rounded bodyI do not say this childFor she walks poised and happyBut I say thisWho looks in at the carriage windowHer eyes are bigToo bigHer hair is touzled and her mouth is doubtfulAnd I say thisWho lies with open eyes upon the pavementCan you hurt her?Tread on those frightened eyesWhy should it frighten her to die?This is a faultThis a fault in which I have a part.
This isn’t an entirely successful poem, but I quote it in full since its unsuccess — all those thistly and unyieldingly separate pronouns; the poised and happy, specific child, overlaid with a conventional fantasia of poverty and domination — does reflect Sisson’s concern with consciousness and the individual and how these concepts or categories give to airy nothing only a local habitation and a name. It’s one of Sisson’s poems that refuses or at least troubles everyday syntax and grammar, it splinters and repeats; the later work isn’t always so obvious about it, but still looks, stop-start and cautious, in more than one direction. Although he wouldn’t be impressed by my leap from literary form to politics — “the world is changing fast, and not even formal rhyme-schemes will save us from this,” quips Sisson — it does seem to me that the conservative poet’s belief, like that of Edmund Burke, in the slow organic growth of an irresistible culture, sits oddly, if at all, with his more periodic, oblique, fractured verse. “It is as if Eliot would not yield to the muse until he had tested all that rationality could do for him” and this opinion-clad civil servant, essayist, and editor would also follow his embattled sense of nationality, his prickly, perhaps merely prickly, architectures of contumely, into the void:
AloneBut to say “alone” would be to give validityTo a set of perceptions which are nothing at all— A set as these words areSet downMeaninglessly on paper, by nobody.— From The Desert
Vidyan Ravinthiran is coeditor of Prac Crit, an online magazine, and author of Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell University Press, 2015) and Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). He teaches at Durham University.