staggered repeats

Ciaran Carson – For All We Know

The bitterest love poetry you'll ever read - George Meredith's Modern Love – fairly rubbishes romantic passion as a snare of fools, or a wasting disease – a kind of phthisis of the soul. The toxicity of the poems is conveyed at the level of its gnarled syntax and the emotional colour of a Walter Sickert in its imagery. If Donne spoke of the 'spider love', Meredith replies with the 'scorpion love' of these sonnets. The marriage portrayed doesn't so much as merely break down - it undergoes time-lapse decay in the astringents of infidelity and mutual hatred; the least of it flawlessly masked by the bourgeois domestic proprieties of the day. The male speaker registers complex responses of disgust and slighted rectitude; looks on his wife as a beguilingly dangerous Lamia who nonetheless commands his abject devotion:
Yea! filithiness of body is most vile,
But faithlessness of heart I do hold worse.
The former, it were not so great a curse
To read on the steel-mirror of her smile.

“Shall I,” he asks, “unsustained,/Drag on Love's nerveless body thro' all time?” - Meredith juggles the emollient hypocrisy of polite society ('Dear guests, you now have seen Love's corpse-light shine.') and the cankered tissue of a marriage in extremis. The poems are teasingly crypto-autobiographical – Meredith's wife, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, cuckolded and left him for the artist Henry Wallis – and they work around the vexed problem of public self-exposure by a heavy reliance on figural language, rhetorical make-shift, and the feeling-tones of melodrama. (Its atmosphere anticipates the parched, airless recrimination of Ford's The Good Soldier.) The Meredithian sonnet – fifteen rather than the conventional fourteen lines – manages at once to be innovatory and classically sanctioned; yet seems unnervingly out of joint, with the addition of that single line (Tony Harrison adopted the stanza for his School of Eloquence.). Much like Tennyson's In Memoriam, Modern Love lies somewhere the contested territory between public utterance – decorous, seemly, graceful – and the need to articulate vortices of private anguish: “These two were rapid falcons in a snare,/Condemned to do the flitting of a bat.” Suppressed hints of sexual violence and (mutually administered) emotional cruelty curdle the poetry. What may or may not be a mariage blanc is a torture-chamber, with Bluebeard presiding over the banns. Conjugal union becomes as pleasurable and edifying as waterboarding to the parties involved. The essential modernity of this love, it seems, entails the discovery of the unbridgeable gulf between the visione amori and the shabby ordinariness, the grudging compromises of real life. But the disagreeable fact remains: there ain't no cure for love.

The zugzwang – in the exotic argot of the chess world – is a forced move, one the player is compelled to make, even though it might damage his position. Ciaran Carson, in For All We Know, understands this ambiguous tactic as the necessity for the mind to recuperate systematically the fading details of a love affair, lest they finally pale to illegibility and the circumstantial vividness of the experience – its meaning and significance - be lost. (The book's doubled end-pieces are titled 'Zugzwang': "...as the old chess master cannot say if ever he learned/the game, since each new game blossoms with new constellations...")

A sonnet sequence, For All We Know is composed of the voices of a man and a woman, Irish and French, who meet in the seventies at the onset of the Troubles: Gabriel and Nina. Essentially plotless, yet tightly bound together by a calculated recurrence of image, theme and phrase, the narrative prosecutes itself as a verbal ricercare, a highly patterned exposition of key 'topics': the lovers' first meeting, the twofold idea of the 'fetch' as doppleganger and behaviour of waves, language concealing identity, tolling bells, fairy tales, heirloom watches and Mont Blanc pens; cryptic misrememberings, renegotiated selves and exploratory rewritings of experience... The book's overall structure itself lends it coherence – indeed, its aesthetic effects depend more on these thematic intervals than what goes on inside each poem. Its two halves mirror each other – the titles of the poems in the first half are the same as those in the second. Intimate vignettes are replayed, differently weighted. The poems speak to one another, correcting themselves, glossing and revising. Memories are spontaneously reorganized in the telling. The epigraph by Glenn Gould – 'So You Want to Write a Fugue' – rather too obviously drops the hint as to the structural principles operating in the sequence: “Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the 'tune' sense, perpetually unfinished.” And 'continually shifting melodic fragments' are precisely what we get here. (In terms of emotional bias, some lines from T.S. Eliot's 'Marina' might have served as epigraph just as well: "What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands ... What images return...") The soft sift of decaying memories are startled into intelligible shapes at the touch of the poet's finger. Thus reconstituted, they cast another light on the fugitive moments of this petite histoire.

Carson's language is rigorously disciplined. He renders the flitting banalities of the daily course of a love affair with fine scruple; yet each iteration alters itself, often shifting with surreal suddenness into the mythic and heraldic:

You stepped out from the shadows wearing a linen jacket
I'd never seen you in before, buttoned on the wrong side.

A sere-cloth dipped in oak-gall ink with buttons of black jet.
A clasp of ebony in the open book in your hands.

Characters of archaic Hebrew Gothic dazzled the page,
black stars danced in the blank universe between the lines,

your mouth disgorging a stream of language not known to me
or any man, for all I knew of what had gone before.


Sean O'Brien has called Carson a 'secular mystic', and written of the 'intense everyday aestheticism, a relish of the thing' in his poetry. True, the 'melodic fragments' of For All We Know are arranged with a combinatorial energy that summons up unimagined symbolic connections – to the point where the mundane exchanges between the lovers take on the fine luminous perfection of the diamond absolutes... Yet due honour is done to the limitless shiftingness, the Heraclitean unrecapturability of the instant: “...Everything was, as it were, provisional,//slipping from the unforeseeable into tomorrow/even as the jittery present became history.” The structural complexity of the book becomes itself a kind of forcing-house for unresolved mysteries, labyrinths of meaning:

...Fugue, my professor said, is a kind of trance

in which the victim disappears for years on end, until
he comes to himself in a strange town and quits the double

life he led unbeknownst to himself. In musical terms
the fugue must perform its often stealthy work with shifting

melodic fragments that remain perpetually in
abeyance, or unconsummated, so to speak, you said.

And I think of the blank darkness that descended on Bach
as the music which blazed in his head became forgotten.

('In the Dark')

The charge often laid on George Meredith's verse is that he was too indulgent in allowing the febrile chaotic emotional bass-note underlying it to issue in quite alarming – to his first readers – formal disfigurements. Literary decorum was violated; and the relative merit of the result is unsettled. The sonnets that comprise Modern Love strain and heave under the pressure of giving voice to feeling that might have done well never to have been brought to light – the poems are syntactically wrecked, broken-winded by their spiteful flawed candour. For All We Know, with its mirrorball sonnets, revolving and flinging off their tesserae of light, might similarly be criticised for its favouring of elaborate formal play over fidelity to emotional clarity and truth. It's not an easy book: the many thousands of casual poetry readers who snapped up Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture – hoping to find in it some clue to their own predicament, as in a piece of wisdom literature – would be roundly stumped by Carson's portrait of the triumph (in the old sense) of love. Carson owes something to the playful ingenuities of Paul Muldoon; and shares something of that poet's obscurity and tricksy verbal braiding. But its textured loveliness, its sensuous fire, will move anyone ready to take time over For All We Know. As, too, will its note of sweet, aching elegy:

I'm the lady propped up at the bar beside you, who puts
words into your mouth before you even know what they are.

I'm the lady who sleeps in you until death do you part.
I'm the lady you see in your dreams though she be long dead.

('Filling the Blanks')


drum-song of murder

Ted Hughes – Collected Poems

Hughes's death in 1998 must have seemed - to a certain generation of readers – an impossibility and a perjury. The poet-elementalist, whose work was violently instinct with the life force itself, and in whom British poetry for the better part of forty years found its hetman, was simply, irrecoverably gone: “The day of his death was a dark, cold day...”

With the possible exception of Seamus Heaney, no other poet had established decisive authority as Hughes. In terms of sheer stature, he could plausibly be described as heir to T.S. Eliot – yet Eliot's public reputation evolved into that of a cultural magnate of the old kind, a discourser on matters wider in scope than literature, projecting schemes for the renewal of society itself. Eliot grew into a private asceticism coordinated with his political views; he embodies a manner and an attitude that, with the passage of years, becomes, to us, coldly estranging, if not downright problematic.

But Hughes was enormously respectful of Eliot – his centenary tribute, published as A Dancer to God and later collected in Winter Pollen, is a sinewy compte rendu of the sources of Eliot's gift, from one of poetry's Roundheads to its suavest Cavalier. As with a fair few of Hughes's prose ventures – nominally concerning themselves with a Shakespeare, a Coleridge or an Eliot – 'The Poetic Self' secretes hints of a poet's self-portrait, foreshadowing the fraught psychic parthenogenesis out of which Eliot's poetry ... one is tempted to say, slithered, in keeping with the conceptual tenor of Hughes's description. (Rewriting Eliot's corpus by his own lights.) Of the early image of St Sebastian that crops up in the juvenilia, Hughes asks “..What was it? Among other things....”

...it was proof, perhaps, that Eliot was able to contain within himself, more fully than any of his contemporaries, none of whom invented anything like it in inclusive complexity, depth and power, the spiritual tragedy of his epoch – of which this was an image, as it was in a more specific way of his own immediate psychological plight. Within this icon, that ascendant spirit of totalitarian, secular control – sceptical, scientific, steeled, flexible, rational, critical – displays its victim, the most profoundly aware and electrified plasm of the martyred psychosoma.

Eliot, by Hughes's estimate, was a poet 'of an utterly new species'. Others before him may have had vague intimations of – in E.M. Forster's phrase – the impact of the unseen on the seen: the mystical tradition in English verse reaches further back than Vaughan and Traherne, to be sure. Hughes picks up in even the earliest of the poetry traces of a vatic disposition, a mind that was fitted like no other to submerge itself in the amniotic fluid of the reptilian mind, as it were, granting Eliot access to altered states that fructified into poetry of such elegant mystery that oftentimes the critical sense is beggared. Hughes's criticism reads as much as a treatise on embryology, as anything else. He invites us to perceive in Eliot's work a form of natural supernaturalism for the age of the Treaty of Versailles, of bimetallism and of the spiritual vacancy entre deux guerres....

Hughes peels away the membrane of drawing-room civility and cosmopolitan savoir faire sheathing the great poet – T.S. Eliot the stockbroker-ish icon of literary London – seeking rather to show that, within the modern urban publisher and cultural panjandrum, a fragile tortured creature coils, bristling defensively. Eliot's wyrd is not that of the conventional Bloomsburyite; but something ancient, hunted and terrifying. He has courted, perilously, his 'true self', the avatar of Tiresias pathologically sensitive to the peculiar psychic violence broiling around and within us. In a certain respect Eliot is an unexpected object for Hughes's laudations. But some remarks of his on the work of the artist Leonard Baskin may have some bearing here. “New art awakens our resistance,” he observes:

...in so far as it proposes changes and inversions, some new order, liberates what has been repressed, lets in too early whiffs of an unwelcome future. But when this incidental novelty has been overtaken or canonized, some other unease remains... An immanence of something dreadful, almost (dare one say it) something unhuman. The balm of great art is desirable and might even be necessary, but it seems to be drawn from the depths of an elemental grisliness, a ground of echoless cosmic horror.

Hughes esteems Eliot as a 'pain-diviner' and 'pain-fathomer': that 'immanence of something dreadful' stirs constantly in its minatory way through even the satirical quatrain poems of the first books. Primitive religious vision curls vividly about the address of the poetry. As Hughes sought in his own work to unlock the sinister areté perhaps mercifully at bay in our daylight selves Рthe brutality and savage joy of the unhoused human subject Рso he was the more disposed to divine it in the work of his great poets.

Scanning the pages of Hughes's Collected Poems, you immediately sense not the modest nudgings of a poetic sensibility toward a pleasant lyric truthfulness; but a semi-feral intellect moving ventre à terre through a dense boscage, scenting the air, ever alert to the subtlest hints signalling invisible threats in the undergrowth. The voice was almost fully achieved early on. Great baroque flourishes of slick blood-boltered verbiage. A world of raptor and prey. Myth not as adornment but as vital constituent. Festal dithyrambic energies given unchecked vent. Nature as a region of sudden violence and obscure undocumented ritual. The Hughes of The Hawk in the Rain, Wodwo and Lupercal is recognizably the same Hughes of Wolfwatching and Birthday Letters. Each book organically sets the conditions of the next Рin few modern poets is there so consistently maintained a development, so traceable a physiological growth Рthe 'biological imprint', as Hughes has phrased it elsewhere. The verse pursues the jagged beeline of its own rhythm, incantatory and at moments unnervingly insinuating. 'Second Glance at a Jaguar', from Wodwo, dramatizes a kind of seductive nightmare of unblinking sight, scalpelling through the superficies of familiar response to an articulation of the mysterious 'unhuman' jaguarhood of the jaguar РHughes enjoins the needful 'second glance':

Skinful of bowls he bowls them,
The hip going in and out of joint, dropping the spine
With the urgency of his hurry
Like a cat going along under thrown stones, under cover,
Glancing sideways, running
Under his spine. A terrible, stump-legged waddle
Like a thick Aztec disemboweller,
Club-swinging, trying to grind some square
Socket between his hind legs round,
Carrying his head like a brazier of spilling embers...
... A gorged look,
Gangster, club-tail lumped along behind gracelessly,
He's wearing himself a heavy ovals,
Muttering some mantra, some drum-song of murder
To keep his rage brightening, making his skin
Intolerable, spurred by the rosettes, the Cain-brands,
Wearing the spots off from the inside,
Rounding some revenge.

Forcefully Hughes alerts the reader to the dim obscenity of this creature. It shucks off the symbolic cope draped over Rilke's panther, an example of the 'concentrated excitement' he has written of, the purpose of which “..in this arena of apprehension and unforeseeable events, is to bring up some lovely solid thing, like living metal, from a world where nothing exists but those inevitable facts which raise life out of nothing and return it to nothing.” The 'selving' of the animal comes about from a long programme of the poet's discipling the senses. Hughes has talked of the 'poetry of positive violence, poetry about the working of divine law in created things', that shuns the 'stereotype, sentimental, weak, loose, media misreading of [the natural]'. Herein implied is the breaking of humanism, its belated forfeit, as, with greater urgency, we must acknowledge that we can no longer pretend to the seigneurial disdain we have, as a species, so long enjoyed. Hughes's work reminds us of our imperilled kinship with the divine law in created things. But – it bears restating – he is no mere anodyne 'eco-poet'. The goblin footfalls are ever-present.

Perhaps the oddest of all Hughes's productions is the Crow sequence. Much-controverted, it stands as an experiment in raw mythopoeia. Hughes allots it a place with Trickster literature, the skew-whiff songs of near-forgotten folkways, that “..draws its effects from the unkillable, biological optimism that supports a society or individual whose world is not yet fully created, and whose metaphysical beliefs are only just struggling out of the dream stage”; and in which “..optimism and creative joy are fundamental, and the attempts to live, and to enlarge and intensify life, however mismanaged, fill up at every point with self-sufficient meaning.” - the 'optimism of the sperm still battling zestfully along after 150 million years'. Casting an eye over these poems, you may find this description superficially unpersuasive. They require of the reader a kind of subtle inner readjustment to the symbolic melodies of what seem to be bleak tone-poems. Crow is demonically Chaplinesque, almost. A dark intensification and subversion of the Shakespearean Fool, or a blind courier from an unthought-of hell:

Crow was so much blacker
Than the moon's shadow
He had stars.

He was as much blacker
Than any negro
As a negro's eye-pupil.

Even, like the sun,
Than any blindness.


Poem as blood-blister... A fractured fairy tale, Crow lends a seething unstable form to the generative violence so prized by Hughes. Yet it takes no mean perversity to assign to it qualities of 'optimism and creative joy'... Crow himself, 'a bombcloud, lob-headed' is a dybukk and a gluttonous sprite, a tattered capering horror from a Jan Svankmajer film – yes, these poems are an account of his thrashing, convulsive attempt to live, to birth himself in the midst of a blasted world; but their ugliness and spastic eccentricity make them more fascinating than engaging. As a whole they resemble nothing so much as a shillelagh clagged with blood and hair. Hughes wanted to draft fresh mythic constellations: but Crow is a cosmogony of bitter pain, the sorrows of an abortive miscreant, for all his protestations to the contrary:

Once upon a time there was a person
Almost a person

Somehow he could not quite see
Somehow he could not quite hear
He could not quite think
Somehow his body, for instance,
Was intermittent
So he just went and ate what he could
And did what he could
And grabbed what he could
And saw what he could

Then sat down to write his autobiography

But somehow his arms were just bits of stick
Somehow his guts were an old watch-chain
Somehow his feet were two old postcards
Somehow his head was a broken windowpane

'I give up,' he said. He gave up.

Creation had failed again.

('A Bedtime Story')

Ted Hughes is perhaps popularly regarded most of all – apart from his relationship with Sylvia Plath, and the Laureateship – as a poet lodged deep in English natural history. The Collected Poems have the weight of the anvil behind them; but they are alive, too, to seasonal change and the small unregarded things around the agrarian enterprise. A sequence like Moortown Diary exhibits Hughes blissfully attentive, sunk in the living warp of days. Here is the poet-farmer, the practical man, sensitized to the rhythms of the natural world. Hughes acquits himself as a writer of considerable tact, authorized by the gift of deep seeing to picture the land and its occupants. “We have some beautiful beasts,” he wrote to Ruth Fainlight and Alan Sillitoe in January 1974. “I'm getting quite involved in them. Impossible not to. They're giving me more than I give them. I was quite intensely enmeshed in their world when I was an infant – but I felt I was losing it. Fishing isn't enough. But now this working on the land & these animals has given it all back double. I feel to be waking up for the first time in my life... Also, it's a revelation to watch at close quarters somebody like Carol's father [Jack Orchard] (he does all the real work) – from farmers in unbroken line as far back as they can trace. He's a mobile archive of know-how & understanding – and the perfect attunement.” Hughes's admiration for the unaffected Orchard way of life enlivens the poetry of Moortown Diary to a vivid enchanted tenderness. Antaeus-like, Hughes's father-in-law draws his strength from the earth:

...Now you have to push your face
So tool-worn, so land-weathered,
This patch of ancient, familiar locale,
Your careful little moustache,
Your gangly long broad Masai figure
Which you decked so dapperly to dances,
Your hawser and lever strength
Which you used, so recklessly,
Like a tractor, guaranteed unbreakable...

('Now you have to push')

The flurry of curiosity, baffled prurience and critical excitement over the publication of Birthday Letters has since subsided, and we're perhaps better placed to consider it on its merits. The Collected Poems reproduces for the first time a thematic companion-piece, Capriccio, memorializing Hughes's lover Assia Wevill in much the same style, with much the same imagistic palette, as the Plath ensemble. Here, the psychodramas are once again nakedly set forth, riddlingly elaborated. Intimate observation and the mythic impulse entwine hectically. The buried privacies of a relationship glitter through, but are fitful and bizarrely attired. As with Birthday Letters, there's somehow the feeling of an open-handed promise of candour, of the free settling of accounts; yet one so obscured by poetic busyness the reader may set these poems down none the wiser.

You had lifted off your future and laid it lightly
Before the door of Aphrodite's temple
As the drowned leave their clothes folded.

Exchanged your face for the mask of Aphrodite
Marriage for the manic depression
Of the ovaries, for the ocean's heave and spill.

Exchanged the plain security of your life-line
For those holy years: the blood-clepsydra
Limit of Aphrodite's epiphany.

'After forty I'll end it,' you laughed
(You were serious) as you folded your future
Into your empty clothes. Which Oxfam took.


You're assaulted by a suspicion, reading these poems, of Hughes – whatever his conscious intention – seconding the personal anguish of Wevill and Plath to a compulsively overmastering poetic vision. And vision in its strongest sense. The sinisterly fatidic trumps the mildly personal, as in 'Dreamers' from Birthday Letters:

We didn't find her – she found us.
She sniffed us out. The Fate she carried
Sniffed us out.
And assembled us, inert ingredients
For its experiment. The Fable she carried
Requisitioned you and me and her,
Puppets for its performance.

Posthumous editions of a poet's work can be troublesome things, when all is said and done. (The stock of Edwin Muir will surely rise with the appearance of a radically pared-down Selected Poems from Faber.) They may ultimately only be of academic interest, however thrilling the completist might find them. Larkin's literary reputation was impaired somewhat by the first Collected Poems, which disregarded the careful selection and apposition Larkin employed in assembling his books. The temptation to pile Pelion on Ossa is a live concern for the doughtily loyal executor. And Hughes's Collected – good though it certainly is to have it – suffers from a kind of dropsy, a too-muchness: if Hughes's obsessions remained consistent throughout his life; and his style, hit upon at the very outset, with its thunderous consonantal hoof-beats and scarred ellipses, served him to the end; then, taken in the lump, experiencing this poetry can feel rather like something between a chastening and a bludgeoning. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Hughes made a bid, in a tireless, obsessive fury, to find the last nucleus of Shakespeare's creative vision. The labour, he was to claim, so weakened him that it enabled the cancer that killed him to take hold. That he identified the poetic endeavour with the vital economy of the body is one final clue to the heft and vigour of his poetry. Poetry as a resistless agon against the brute fact of matter.

in their deathtime

Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts - Deaths of the Poets What - for the poet, whose work is validated by the vital intricacies o...