Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts - Deaths of the Poets
What - for the poet, whose work is validated by the vital intricacies of meaning - should be the exemplary death, where one is, as it were, end-stopped by the terminal silence? Must it be regarded as a summary gloss on all the words that came before? The poet’s art is shadowed by the immanence of death, the whiteness of the page - all negation, all that is non-human - briefly accommodates human presence, which is utterance, which is breath and soul. Placidly reconciled to our end, few of us will be. And poets have been transacting uneasily between their limited mortal selves and personal extinction - in one way or another - from the moment they laid down their first chiasmus.
The precision-engineered balance and Palladian four-square of the heroic couplet, in Pope’s hands, was superstitiously a warding spell against Chaos and Old Night: he mastered the nightmare of dissolution in The Dunciad by imposing on it the elaborate minuet of form. Or Emily Dickinson can almost bring Death into the bienséance of the New England drawing-room by imagining him as a Bostonian gentleman with his equipage (‘Because I could not stop for Death..’). Hag-ridden by death, Philip Larkin made one last try at the end of his fallow years to give it its due but still to deny, deny, deny its grim implacability: his last published poem ‘Aubade’ is as rawly unaverted in its gaze, as irredentist in its clamour for life as anything John Donne might have written. The inner movement of the poem leads him to a wan recognition that the daily round resumes again; but the sheer rhetorical heave of the preceding stanzas is what we remember of the peculiar flavour of the poem - the emotional terrorism. (Seldom noted is the poem Larkin wrote a month or two after ‘Aubade’, which concludes with a touch more equanimity, more prophylactically, ‘The Winter Palace’:
Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.
If the poet is supposed to have a stronger instinctive taproot into the blood and mire of the human predicament than the rest of us, what more can she teach us of the attitude we should best adopt in the face of our end? Is it her role to compile an ars moriendi for our peace of mind?
Poetry is always taken to be an affirmation, whatever its ostensible subject matter: that we are here in the middest, apprehending the world more or less acutely, capable of perception and cognition; that, even in pain or despair, expression in and of itself - the seizing hold of meaning - can be morally decisive. The more elusive the emotion, the more transient the experience, the more aptly can the fixitive of poetic language preserve it for us. It holds out the promise that we can meaningfully engage with the cosmos. We are all of us, in our modest way, Promethean. The blot of the ‘scutcheon, however, is that for all its seemingly limitless plasticity, human utterance does have its bounds, beyond which it cannot go. Beckett grasped this, and his career was an excruciating diminuendo into near-senile wordlessness. Because the lyric impulse stood revealed as a conjuror’s trick, prettified verbal ornament that falsified whatever it touched. Because literary realism betrayed itself as merely conventional as classical epic. “A poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature,” so Glyn Maxwell. It’s a token of encounter, of mind parlaying with mind - and death evacuates all such possibility; the transactional nature of reading and writing poetry reaches its terminus; form collapses, meaning expires.
David Ferry - in his nineties, about to publish his translation of The Aeneid - has written in his latest collection Bewilderment with lucidity and formal spruceness of living in the vespertine hours. Poetry-as-viaticum wouldn’t be quite right: no one's asking that you be absolute for death. The achieved calm that could be claimed with age, the barkskinned stoicism, is nowhere detectable in this late work. It’s an agitated poetry, bewildered, yes, but braced by technical assurance - as if command of the formal properties of verse could serve a redemptive end, even as the deliverances of meaning were threatened. Until:
Where did you go, when you went away?
It is as if you step by step were going
Someplace elsewhere into some other range
Of speaking, that I had no gift for speaking,
Knowing nothing of the language of that place
To which you went with naked foot at night
Into the wilderness there elsewhere on the bed,
Elsewhere somewhere in the house beyond my seeking.
I have been so dislanguaged by what happened
I cannot speak the words that somewhere you
Maybe were speaking to others where you went.
Maybe they talk together where they are,
Restlessly wandering, along the shore,
Waiting for a way to cross the river.
‘That Now are Wild And Do Not Remember’
The poem’s title (and the ‘naked foot’) may well be a passing retrospect of Wyatt’s ‘They fle from me that sometyme did me seke’ - an erotic wisp, quickly extinguished - but the poem finally docks with Virgil’s Aeneid VI, settling on the allusion after a dismayed spoken fluster, the touching clumsiness of 'Someplace elsewhere..elsewhere somewhere' and 'range/of speaking..no gift for speaking'. This is a sonnet stricken of rhyme, as though the technical reflex still sought to bring it under the jurisdiction of the form, but the emotion - the astringent of grief - stripped it of verbal enamelling. The poet may have conceived of a sonnet - the shaping instinct was still there, the quantities and due proportions - but so powerful was the emotion that it emerged malformed. But what was undone in terms of technique, is amply recompensed by the poem's truth-to-feeling. Ferry articulates an oft-documented anxiety: as Rilke has it, “Of Death he knew what we know generally:/Death takes us and it thrusts us into silence.” The poet - an optimalist in his conviction that even the most delicate apperceptions can be caught and held in the force-field of language, that naming is the primal human act - finds himself discomfited by the loss of common modes of exchange, the loss of signal reception. A lifetime of intimacy, of shared history, in-jokes, private verbal by-play is firmly devolved on the past. It ought to continue, in some fashion, but experience would have it otherwise. Eurydice remains mute. Yet once we have the insight, as Ferry observes with a terrible bluntness in another poem, its corrosions can’t be contained with the posthumous status of a relationship:
Unable to know is a condition I’ve lived in
All my life, a poverty of imagination
About the life of another human being.
This is, I think, the case with everyone.
Is it because there is a silence that we
Are all of us forbidden to cross, not only
The silence that divides the dead from the living,
But, antecdent to that, is it the silence
There is between the living and the living,
Unable to reach across that silence through
The baffling light there always is between us?
Among the living the body can do so sometimes,
But the mind, constricted, inhibited by its ancestral
Knowledge of final separation, holds back,
Unable to complete what it wanted to say.
The dismayed candour of this is striking, but its steady professorial exposition - as of the philosopher at the lectern - compounds the effect. The temper of the times has it that we must be natural empaths, quick to sense and feel the inwardness of others, the better to act justly and with compassion towards them. Ferry’s view is decidedly contra mundum. (We are, finally, ‘windowless monads’, and can do more than make shift in our dealings with other people. It’s a position, I imagine, for which there’d be few takers.)
Denise Riley - who has taken the lyric as vessel of a singular voice and turned it inside out, ironised and purged - is brought up hard against a similar breach in the natural order, the loved one dying and proving unresponsive to the desperate entreaties of those who remain. Her collection Say Something Back contains a sequence addressed to her son:
She do the bereaved in different voices
For the point of this address is to prod
And shepherd you back within range
Of my strained ears; extort your reply
By finding any device to hack through
The thickening shades to you, you now
Strangely unresponsive son, who were
Such reliably kind and easy company,
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
- Still no? Then let me rest, my dear.
‘A Part Song’, ix
‘Mawkish modes of reedy piping’ are the poet’s duelling case of technique and traditions to be drawn upon - here variously ineffectual. Syntax loosens and unbinds in Riley’s elegies - they are often without punctuation, although the gestalt of the printed form maintains itself - and the effect is of spontaneous utterance, strangely skewed. Again, as with Ferry, the sense that the dead are out of range, subsisting at frequencies beyond our detection; and Riley glances, as does Ferry, at the classical underworld, as an anonymous concourse thronged with spirits shelled of their former selves, like spectral automata. Nothing so needful for the recently bereaved - and nothing finally so bootless - as faith in the call-and-response between the living and the dead. Never quite failing into glossolalia - pitch and meaning inhere yet - these poems, poignant with pain, admit to themselves that they may as well be simply vocalise, that their burden is in the voicing for its own sake.
Deaths of the Poets, cowritten by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, prompts curiosity as to the motives for its writing, which, as set out in the book itself, have a vagueness about them, as if a skimpy editorial commission had to be worked up, laboured at, spun into a saleable piece of book-making. Its predecessor Edgelands had the virtue of novelty, with our doughty narrators as academic supertramps, venturing into the unexplored penetralia of a forgotten Britain, without benefit of satnav. This work has them once again faring forward into the world, with on this occasion a specific itinerary: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on The Trip, but funded by the Society of Authors. Their avowed intent, taking Johnson’s Lives of the Poets as a point of departure, is to investigate the thesis of the poète maudit, asking “Is it true that great poems come at a heavy - ultimately fatal - price?”. The tilt of the book is more anecdotal-biographical than lit-crit, with something of the uneasy forced curiosity of a Sunday supplement arts profile: Farley and Symmons Roberts visit the final homes of their poets, as though, perhaps after fifty years, the Key West condo where Elizabeth Bishop spent the end of her life held some vestigial magic - but their encounter with Michael the Building Manager is chillingly bathetic:
He tells us that Bishop was one of the first to buy into the new
dock conversions. She had vision, he says. She could see the
potential here. When she bought it, her apartment would have
cost around $55,000, now it’s worth upwards of a million and
a half. She was one of his favourite residents, a friendly presence
around the place. She used to wear jeans and roll them up like
Capri pants, always with a button-down white shirt and sneakers.
Something undignified about this kind of shallow inquisitiveness, something needy - it’d have been a safe bet that they would have returned from this trip empty-handed, that Bishop’s last home decades later would have told them very little about its former resident. (The superstition that animated Edgelands - and made it so interesting in a gonzo sociology way - seems here to have led them to go in search of something, presumably at some expense, they knew they’d never find: that places can be abiding backgrounds of affect, bear the imprint of intense feeling long after you’ve gone: “In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.” - Bachelard.) The urge to leave one’s study, to be seen to be doing the legwork, all in service of the Story, is more of a piece with feature writing as practised in high-end newspapers than with critical essay writing; and one can’t help thinking that - were they Mail on Sunday journalists rather than poets - John Berryman’s widow mightn’t have been so welcoming:
The tea is finished. Kate has been generous and open. The stillness
here and the darkness under the great trees makes it feel like a trap.
We are on edge, in spite of Kate’s hospitality. John Berryman in later life
had a conversion experience, from a scholastic belief in the divine to
faith in a personal ‘God of rescue’, a God who could intervene in the
details of individual lives. Was he hoping for such a rescue?
Did he wait for it here? And what about us? Are we here to meet a ghost?
By any measure, this is pretty glaikit stuff. Dickens, in The Uncommercial Traveller, tells us that he ‘travelled for the great house of the Human Interest Brothers’; and what is now familiarly recognised as the ‘human interest story’ avails itself of rhetorical vapour-fits like that here quoted. It demeans as it flatters, one narrowed eye always on what will make for marketable copy; the confected earnestness, the breathlessness… Might Rosemary Tonks, a poet who deliberately and in earnest sought to sever ties with her old life, to effect the wholesale abolition of her former self and remake herself as an anchoress, have happily received the attentions of our duo, as the estate agent who sold her Bournemouth bungalow shows them pictures of its interior taken shortly after her death?
There were bathroom suites in spearmint green and bubblegum pink,
frilly flora lampshades, but the big shock is the dust. The house was
not just dusty, it lay like indoor snow on the carpets, so the photographs
show desire paths through it, habitually used to get from room to room.
It hangs in swags from the ceiling like Spanish moss. It is hard not to
conjure Miss Havisham, living among the wreckage of the past.
“The spectre of madness looms over both [Emily] Dickinson’s and Tonks’s vanishings..” one of our necronauts writes (as the text is set in an undeterminable first person plural, attribution for any given passage is tricky) in the kind of bantered cliché they can always reliably lay hands on; again, the spectre of the tabloid copyeditor looms over the book, ensuring any of the observations it proposes are never so taxing for the intended reader.
Tricked out in the pious awe of pilgrimage, each poet kitted out with their staff and scrip, these treks nonetheless have the embarrassed air of a contractual obligation. Louis MacNeice, the contemporary of Auden and, perhaps, a poet of Auden’s stature - albeit MacNeice is more comfortably a worldling, more alive to the social atmosphere of his day - died of pneumonia after a trip to record wildtrack for a radio play in a Yorkshire cavern complex. His death stirred Auden to his great elegy ‘The Cave of Making’; it here compels the authors to search for the very cave: “Did Louis simply die of cold or was there something down in the dark that took to him?” Which cave poses a problem, as there’s no documentary clue in MacNeice’s written leavings. Not a whit abashed, however, our duo take a guess and make the descent, bristling - as poets must - to the heavy symbolic lading of such a venture. Yet this episode illustrates the strange redundancy of the whole enterprise. MacNeice’s death was as arbitrary, as unheralded, as the death of anyone else; tragically abridging a gifted man’s life, but, for all that, no more or less significant than any other. MacNeice’s being a poet is neither here nor there, yet to suggest this death, in this place, in these circumstances was somehow a fatum flowing inevitably from his profession - was moreover eerily prefigured in his last work - seems faintly absurd. The outward impedimenta of a death - the Bleaneyesque boarding-house room, the retirement home, the river bank; whether conducted serenely or in paroxysms of fear - can tell us only so much and no more. (Some are so susceptible to mythologising, it’s nigh-on impossible to credit their veracity.)
T.S. Eliot floated the distinction between the mind that suffers and the mind that creates, ruefully pointing up the fact of radical self-division, the poet living amid a siege of contraries that are a tax on his time and attention. But we could just as well observe that the mind that creates is For even the poet must accept his assujetissement to the unpoetic demands of everyday life. The Yeatsian gambit - “Even when the poet seems most himself.. he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” - mystifies our sense of who the poet is and what she does, even as it tries to ennoble it. It fails to give due weight to the ‘vulgate of experience’, as Wallace Stevens had it. The authors seize on a rumour of Stevens’s death-bed conversion to Catholicism - Stevens, who strove in his poetry to replace a truant Christian godhead with a high sacrament of art. The story goes that Stevens bid a local priest to join him for theological discussion in the watches of the night, that he was afraid, and that over the course of several visits assented to church doctrine - was ‘baptised absolutely’, according to Father Arthur Hanley. Stevens, in poetry and prose, ranged the high sierras of metaphysics, a secularist and hymnodist in a godless universe - it was Art that filled the God-shaped hole, Art that remedied our spiritual impoverishment. Innuendo to the effect that Stevens threw over a lifetime’s work and thought at the very end traduces the mission of the work and arguably diminishes the man. And again, there’s the freeze-frame/record-scratch moment, the rise, the roll, the carol, the deflation, as our authors remind us that even poetry’s Grand Panjandrum was subject to the same physical laws as the rest of us:
Before we leave, we knock on the door again. Can one of us use the
toilet? We have a long drive ahead of us. The house is, as she warned
us, stacked high with boxes. The toilet seems to be the only box-free
room in the house. ‘Would the bathroom be unchanged since
Wallace Stevens used it?’ Yes, she thought it probably would.
The roster of the illustrious dead is the familiar one, all the biographers’ darlings; and the amateur thanatologist won’t find anything that hasn’t been turned over before. The striking inclusion of John Riley, murdered in 1978, a poet largely forgotten now but still with his devotees, rather makes me wish the book had granted more space to fewer subjects; Farley and Symmons Roberts cover ground at a fair old clip - the structure of the book doesn’t give pointers to the duration of their travels and research - but such perambulatory cultural histories - with their lesser cousinship to the geomantic stravaigings of Iain Sinclair - are as locked in the constraints of time and place as they are given licence for premissing themselves on them. On learning that the public lavatory where Riley’s body was found is to be demolished our authors are out of the traps, with all the undignified scrabble of a trainee hack sprinting to a local crime scene: “..it has suddenly become a race against time to view the site, before all trace of it has been wiped from the face of the earth.” A race against time… The imaginative conceit, interestingly deployed in Edgelands, that place is inscribed with meaning which defies time and decay, and can be read as a text is read in all its valencies, tumbles here into self-parody. We’re offered scratch notes on Riley’s poetry - “There are plenty of love lyrics, wind, rain, the trees in the parks and gardens, a witness to seasonal and diurnal forces, the plainsong of quiet praise, night thoughts, and the moon. Lots of moons.” - but nothing that might persuade you to seek out his work. Indeed, Deaths of the Poets so underutilises quotation and commentary that one wonders if this were not by publisher’s edict. (Is criticism still associated in the mind of the reading public with Leavisian censoriousness and neo-puritan charmlessness, with elitism and canonical ukase? Name one book of lit-crit in recent years that could be said to have had a readership beyond the academy, since James Wood has gone off the boil.)
To take poetry out of the study, to impart to the reading of it a kind of plein air venturesomeness and down-and-dirty grittiness, to draw literary criticism into the purview of the documentary film maker: some of this in the rationale for Deaths of the Poets. A certain anxiety about relevance, about the preparedness of poetry for coping with the perversity and ugliness of the world. (In point of fact, Michael Symmons Roberts’s work disciplines itself into shapened form while essaying containment strategies for the violence of the world - it patrols the interface between matter and spirit. It attests to the possibility of risk-taking, that needn’t involve faintly uneasy forays into amateur journalism.) The generic hybrid is fashionable this weather: the loose thematic assembly of material, the digressive aside; the Sebaldian composite of fact and vision, history public and personal, a mongrel form like the Renaissance anatomy; as the reader traverses virtual landscapes in a kind of spiritualised field work. Such writing valorises the immediacy of the fait divers, urges on us its engagement with the here-and-now, rather than mere abstraction, mere bookishness. It flatters the reader that, should she choose, she could roam free. Something more could have been written about poets’ deathtimes - as when a poet like David Ferry or Denise Riley exhibit the power of facing, a willed turning-of-their-gaze to the null space of death, clutching the golden bough of language. As a counter-example: Glyn Maxwell’s eerily unclassifiable Drinks with Dead Poets touches on certain similar themes, but its poet-revenants speak in defiance of extinction ipsissima verba, they materialise, remade, stepping into the current of the text - buoyed by cadence, in a festal symposium with the living - in a literary exercise which at once honours the poetry and makes good the Audenesque claim that the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living.