No 3 - Autumn/Winter 1995
The Poetry of Christopher Reid: an overview
It may sometimes seem as though the poetic world can be divided into two groups: those published by Faber and Faber, and those rejected by Faber and Faber. Bloodaxe has emerged in recent years as a worthy challenger to the existing hegemony, and its enthusiastic, almost indiscriminate support of poets has netted some talented writers amongst the outnumbering bad. But those ffs, thankfully reduced from Malthusian proportions to a single dignified imprint on this year’s Faber covers, are still the hallmark of excellence. A new Faber poet takes his or her place in an unbroken tradition inaugurated by the Pope of Russell Square.
Dozens have been called to become Faber poets; so how much more venerated are those individuals chosen to fill Eliot’s post of poetry editor? Christopher Reid is the latest incumbent of what many consider the most enviable job in publishing. However, the experiences of his predecessor, Craig Raine, should make even the most ambitious undergraduate wary. Raine retreated to Oxford’s cloisters in 1991, complaining of needing more time to write. His impressive list of enemies - more impressive in length than content is testimony to ten years of turning down manuscripts. Raine would tell promising poets to re-submit in a few years’ time; Reid seems happier to publish the potential while waiting for the real thing. Which approach is best depends whether you’re an impatient twentysomething or an established poet embarrassed by the gaucheries of early work.
The neglect of Reid’s poetry is partly due to his career: critics must steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of currying favour and sour grapes. The other reason for his critical neglect is quickly apparent from the few published discussions of Reid’s work, which usually present him as second-in-command of someone else’s movement - Geoffrey Howe to Raine’s Thatcher. Like all persuasive travesties, this is founded on unquestionable truths. Reid was taught by Raine at Oxford, and subsequently served his poetic apprenticeship in Raine’s shadow. Yet although Raine remained the senior partner, Martianism seems to have developed through a competitive collaboration; exchanging poems, each set out to startle the other with ever more outrageous similes and metaphors. Reid’s first two volumes, Arcadia (1979) and Pea Soup (1982), are clearly of the Martian school. So in ‘Baldanders’ a weightlifter’s exertions are described as follows:
Glazed, like a mantelpiece frog,
he strains to become
the World Champion (somebody, answer it!)
The “mantelpiece frog” squats amidst Reid’s favourite terrain domestic kitsch. (Another poem, ‘Pastoral’, ends with a description of tankards on hooks, “free/ as a flight of sitting-room ducks”.) Once they grasp the Martian metaphor, Neil Corcoran reports, some readers say “so what?” This surely seems a leaden response to the marvellous revelation that weightlifters resemble human telephones. As that ur-Martian, Aristotle, pointed out, genius resides in the ability to perceive connections between dissimilar objects.
From their 1990s vantage-point reviewers sometimes use the adjective “Martian” in a derogatory sense, as simple and limiting; like the invention of cats’-eyes, it’s so obvious in retrospect that anyone could have thought of it. A glance at the fumblings of the school’s imitators - from David Sweetman to Gerard Woodward - would be enough to prove that Reid’s gifts, even in his early poetry, extend far beyond visual retrieval. At its best, his work is gluttonous for sensory gratification of any kind: the deservedly anthologised ‘A Whole School of Bourgeois Primitives’ captures the “drenching mnemonic smell” which “rain on a sultry afternoon” brings “surging out of the heart of the garden”; in ‘Pea Soup’ the taste-buds are tantalised and appalled by “the floe of fat/ you scrape with a tablespoon/ from quivering stock,/ one moment’s ghost of salt// and a wincing lemon”; alert for the tactile, ‘A Disaffected Old Man’ even notices the stickiness of brandy; and ‘Ivesian Fugue’ transforms the “Bonk, bonk, bonk!" of a tennis match into a string quartet. Reid is a hedonist, converting the mundane into sensuous or aesthetic delights: his persona in that last poem stops to consider “how music springs from catgut,/ and four men bobbing and scuttling on a lawn”. And in what amounts to a manifesto-poem, ‘Academy of the Aleatoric’, a pavement artist “knows/ that anything goes: scraps and wrappers,/ boot-prints, impasto of muck.../ The dogs and drains append the most delicate touches”.
Anything goes, especially if it offers sybaritic pleasure, but there is nothing chancy about Reid’s technique and control of the line in these early volumes. The favoured form of Arcadia is the unrhymed couplet, potentially aphoristic as the Martian eye moves effortlessly from discovery to discovery:
Broad beans out of their baths
come to us wrinkled like finger-ends.
They wait on a plate for our solemn
attentions, the ointment of butter.
(‘From an Idea by Toulouse-Lautrec’)
That such lines seem simple is proof of Reid’s mastery; in his sensory quest the poetry, almost, does not matter. But some measure of his achievement is gained by comparing an imitator like Gerard Woodward, who shares many of Reid’s visual gifts but whose lines often disintegrate into arbitrary enjambements and syntactical confusion:
Her hair dyed auburn,
A hook she cut
From herself and kept,
As if its riddance
Might take something else
With it, or she
Could picture from it
How she was at the moment
This is a particularly clumsy example, from the E.J. Thribb school of syntax and line-breaks. However, it does illustrate some of the pitfalls and weaknesses which Reid’s poetry avoids. In the early work his line is not especially adventurous, but it is handled with a sureness and flexibility which augur the greater experimentation of later volumes.
Despite their undoubted similarities, it would be wrong to associate Arcadia and Pea Soup too closely. Pea Soup draws more often on the technical resources of rhyme and fixed forms, while also at times managing an emotional complexity beyond anything in Arcadia. ‘At the Wrong Door’, a sonnet of amour manque addressed to the poet’s wife, contains the sensuous intimacies we might expect from Reid: the bourgeois primitive “perfume/ of soap and sweat”, for example. But now these serve only as reminders of a greater loss: “I can only// stop to think how somewhere else/ you may be standing, naked, lonely,/ amid a downfall of dampish towels”. Exact even in its approximations - “dampish” - the imagined scene conveys vulnerability, isolation, fear, longing, and a hint of eroticism. Its psychological complexities, still rare but not unique in Pea Soup, mark a new development for Reid’s poetry.
Unfortunately, a moral sententiousness also creeps into Reid’s second volume. While Arcadia took amoral gratification from affairs of the senses, Pea Soup has important things to say and attitudes to adopt. The “awkward reverence” of Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, for example, is replaced in Reid’s ‘Magnum Opus’ by a disengaged cynicism: the persona “dip[s] in” to the “huge and improbable fiction” of a cathedral’s religious life, but finds an organ droning, delirious bells, and a choir “blase and epicene”. He finally recalls “a young woman who fainted,/ my neighbour’s atonal keen/ and the brute baby that ranted/ against the preaching dean”. While this cacophony would have delighted the Martian of Arcadia, or even the poet in Pea Soup who can turn a tennis match into an Ivesian fugue, now it is despised as a meaningless clamour celebrating an absurdity. The poem’s implicit misanthropy finds fuller expression in ‘The Portrait Game’, which contrasts with the generous vision of Craig Raine’s ‘Yellow Pages’ from The Onion, Memory. Raine relishes the way a grocer “trapezes” a paper bag, or a window cleaner waves goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Reid’s brutish foreman “tells his mates what’s what,/ and they laugh when he does”. ‘Dark Ages’ exhibits a similar sourness at the failings of humanity as it describes our “heraldry of dirt”. No nostalgie de la boue here: dogs are “crappant on a lawn vert”, and “civic walls” defiled “by spray-gunned mottoes, jousting cocks”. The pavement artist who treated scraps and wrappers as creative benisons, and incorporated the delicate touches of dogs and drains into his work, has suddenly begun to rant against what he considers the detritus of a society in decline.
Even so, Pea Soup ultimately survives the poet’s rage for order, because Reid detects and defeats his own censoriousness. Two monologues, ‘The Ambassador’ and ‘The Inspector’, constitute powerful dramatizations of the conflicting impulses within his work. “Our people like to have things orderly”, the inspector assures himself, even while the “playground of impromptu metaphors” through which he ambles suggests distinctly otherwise. Having noted “the baroque sexuality/ of our public-garden sculpture” - old kings on “high-buttocked” horses and cupids “tumbling” dolphins he later reconmiends that a centre to “cosmos and chaos” should be established: “A bulldozer to these romping stones!/ Imagine a high-toned statuary/ of minimal symbolic clutter,/ with its fine proportions and right lines”. That vivacious oxymoron, “romping stones”, is conclusive proof of where the poem’s sympathies lie. Likewise ‘The Ambassador’, reworking Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’, parodies the very sententiousness Reid displays elsewhere. As the bewildered ambassador picks his way through the clutter and confusion of an alien planet - that is, a primary school - he still manages to cling to the maxim
that through a studious
reading of chaos we may
arrive at the grammar of civilization.
This epitomises the dichotomy in Pea Soup between the order of civilization, as represented by the ambassador, and the anarchic innocence of children and other aliens. It is a dichotomy only resolved through the irony of these dramatic monologues; paradoxically, Reid resists the terrible beauty of his own internal bureaucrat by giving him full voice.
The ambassador’s hope that a “studious/ reading of chaos” might lead to “the grammar of civilization” typifies a Martian emphasis on methods of reading and misreading. After all, the planetary anthem begins and ends with different kinds of reading:
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings -
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
This contrasts with the nocturnal activities of earthlings:
at night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs
and read about themselves -
in colour, with their eyelids shut.
‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ has more finesse than Larkin’s “Books are a load of crap”; nevertheless, there are similar implications. The body revolts against “Caxtons”, and their blackand-white attractions cannot compete with the vivid technicolour of dreams. Pictures are more natural and appealing than words. Martianism wrestles with a humdrum language which can only partially convey the riches of sensory experience; even the title of Raine’s latest book, History: The Home Movie, suggests this dissatisfaction. Martians wish they could bypass words altogether, believing like Huxley that we live our conscious lives in a universe of reduced awareness, expressed and. ..petrified by language”.
Katerina Brac (1985), Reid’s third volume, finds the perfect analogy for the visionary inadequacies of language: translation. Brac is an invented Eastern European poet whom Reid has supposedly translated into English, hoping to have retained the flavour of the original. It’s a shame the Faber publicity did not maintain the blurb’s charade: “The testimony of Katerina Brac may strike some readers as typical of the artist under pressure, but the way in which this still too little-known poet addresses her situation remains startlingly individual.” This would have offered ample opportunity for pious reviewers to hold forth on the conflict between those grandiose capitalized entities, Art and Life. Sadly, reviewers were spared by the knowledge that Brac is another of Reid’s sham personae: “Memory supplies/ the illusion that one has lived”, she muses, simultaneously providing both a metaphysical speculation and a recognition of her own fictionality. Struggling with his non-existent original, Reid slides convincingly into translationese: “I admire the people among whom I live”, one poem begins, as though rendered into English by an A-level student who dare not end with a preposition. If there is such a degree of slippage in translation, the volume implies, how much more must get lost when sensory perceptions are forced through the reducing valve of language? But Katerina Brac is also Reid’s first tentative sortie into “Babylonish dialect”; since language is a product of our limited consciousness, a heightened awareness requires a system of communication unshackled by the ordered syntax of the rational mind. This theory finds its fulfilment in the weird and wonderful ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’ from Reid’s fourth and most recent collection, In the Echoey Tunnel (1991). Katerina Brac is less linguistically daring, but it does allow Reid to escape into a persona whose techniques and preoccupations are markedly different from his own.
Too much can be made of Reid’s deliberate clumsiness; many poems in Katerina Brac are remarkable successes in their own right, regardless of their ventriloquism. For example, Reid’s penchant for folklore as a poetic resource finds spellbinding expression in ‘Traditional Stories’. The poem begins with the story of the ladybird who, wanting some new spots, visited the woman who makes “the pupils for children’s eyes”; when the tale is interrupted by an unidentified addressee, Brac starts again with the story of a horse breathing heavily on cold mornings to produce “all the clouds! that fill the sky”. After another interruption, Brac begins her third tale:
Then shall I try to remember the story about the snail
who set out on a journey to the centre of his shell?
You know that snails move very slowly,
and this one had been travelling for a whole year
when he met a Gipsy with a magic cooking-pot.
The Gipsy said -
No? Are you quite sure? That’s a shame.
Because the only other story I have is the one about the
who went to live in the big city,
and you’ve heard that so many times before.
This is wonderfiul poetry: witty, inventive, assured, managed with an economy of means, and like Martianism, obvious only in retrospect. However, Brac is still more than a vehicle for her creator’s poem. The faceless killjoy who keeps halting her inspiration might represent an official curb on fantasy in a totalitarian state; and the last three lines apparently return to the mundanity of Brac’s own life, adding another fragment to the sketchy and oblique biography which gradually peeps through her metaphysical soarings - a troubled love affair, a musical father, a disdain for state bureaucracy, and so on.
A conflict between fantasy and authority runs throughout Katerina Brac, analogous to the divisions enacted in the dramatic monologues of Pea Soup. But in ‘Realism’ Brac might seem at first to be switching sides, as she presents her idea for a film:
It will begin with a birth;
not the conventional euphemisms,
but pictures of the real thing -
mucky and time-consuming
like some operation in charcuterie,
where the child is produced
with a great deal of awkward business
in its ugliest guise:
a little howling blood sausage.
The film will end with the nitty-gritty of death - “the final grotesque drama/ of spasms and incontinence”. And in between will be “years and years of realism -/ what our people have always required,/ but never yet been given”. Reid has put into the mouth of his Eastern Bloc persona nothing less than an oblique and dignified parable of artistic resistance to an oppressive regime. What “our people” have never been given is life itself, with all its horrors, banalities, and joys, free from officialdom’s censored or sanitized versions. This is one of Reid’s finest achievements: by shifting the Martian’s indiscriminate gaze behind the lion Curtain, he has transformed an aesthetic into a potent weapon against totalitarianism.
Katerina Brac is an outstanding collection, to which it is impossible to do justice so briefly. It is also stylistically liberating, allowing Reid to end a poem with the unashamedly emotional “How sad!”, or to write in Wordsworthian fashion about the power of “experiences/ that felt like memory even as they happened”. Reid does not abandon Brac after this volume. In the Echoey Tunnel translates a few vaguely haikuesque jottings (‘Pips’) which seem like leftovers from Brac’ s fully orchestrated work: “it’s the cleverest trick/ Eve taught Adam// you bite the pip/ and taste the whole tree”. The “trick” doesn’t work here though; the pips are rather insipid. Katerina Brac - or Katenna Brac - has influenced the latest collection in one other curious way: Reid seems often to be translating, rewriting or updating an earlier poem. ‘Consulting an Oracle’ is propped up by Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’; MacNeice’s ‘The Taxis’ lurks in the background of ‘Hotels’; Muldoon’s ‘Whim’ inspires the bestial sex of ‘Contretemps’; ‘Your Biographer’ adds a dash more cynicism to a subject explored in Larkin’s already cynical (and strangely prescient) ‘Posterity’; ‘A Perversion’ should have been written by the Fenton of ‘Exempla’ - if at all. The volume’s short poems are disappointing. The satires against academia and “literary London”, for example, are “dampish” squibs, the target being too obvious; nor is it ever mentioned that the poet is a far from insignificant cog in the machine he is lampooning.
But the two long poems of In the Echoey Tunnel, ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’ and ‘Survival: a Patchwork’, represent Reid’s most ambitious work to date. ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’ is a centenarian’s recollection of his bizarre childhood; vividly circumventing the inhibitions of rational language, grammar and syntax, the poem’s argot achieves moments of visionary intensity. Raine’s ‘Anno Domini’ (from The Onion, Memory) had already indicated that the Martian project carried religious resonances, determined as it was to cleanse the doors of perception and forge a language capable of expressing a sacramental reality. Now Reid’s Alfred Stoker, in his naive and barely literate style, approaches this mystical insight. In ‘Survival: a Patchwork’ Reid describes the poem as an “old man’s/ symbolic map of heaven”. Certainly Alfred’s life contains clear religious associations: he is born on Christmas Day; during the labour an angel appears to his mother; his father is a preacher, who receives signs to convert first Scotland, then Morocco; and his education consists of learning “to read and rite the BIBLE/ and drow/ all so sing himms/ in a good Vois with pa”. Reviewers and critics who claimed that Reid is disdainful of Alfred’s narrowly religious sensibility and near-illiteracy miss the point. Although Alfred laments the fact that “i never see the ANGEL”, he is still capable of perceptions beyond the range of the rational mind. This is how he describes his mother’s death, switching seamlessly from the soul’s flight to the body’s chilled stasis:
so Ma did
flow to HEVAN
being a Long jirnie
wich the forten Teller Told
a blaket on
and her Hair Lose untidie
Like a BIBLE pirson
and her face Cold.
This visionary idiom reaches heights a more formal language could not manage. Earlier Alfred’s mother describes the angel’s effulgence with an extraordinary intensity: “He had a gold face she sad/ and his Winges Gold flammy/ and his ramond of Gold stufes”. But the poem’s symbolic map of heaven still does not neglect earthly emotions. When Alfred’s father fails to return from his mission to “Mogro”, Alfred sees him in a dream “crox the wold/ up to Lund Waping/ owr Street/ at the front door/ up Stares/ in the bed room/ at the bed// a hoy Alf.” The childhood grief for a lost father is poignantly conveyed by the dream’s wish-fulfilment.
Alfred’s quirky punctuation suggests a mind unmoulded by orthodox schooling, outside the bounds of rational discourse. ‘Survival: a Patchwork’ seems equally indifferent to the rigours of punctuation, employing just the occasional comma. However, Reid no longer has the camouflage of dramatic monologue, as he celebrates - sometimes nervously, as though fearing providence - his wife’s recovery from cancer. ‘Survival’ is a brave poem: private, nakedly emotional, the first person voice is more clearly identifiable with the poet than in earlier work. Formally, the poem duplicates the patchwork art of Reid’s wife, as its stanzas snake down the page:
If I could borrow
from your intricate art
this one among your accomplishments
a patchwork pattern
words, remnants, savings
things seen and known
not that old man’s
symbolic map of heaven
a more questionable symmetry
pieced out and negotiated
day by day by
with the occasional mistake, too
you know why
able to trace
even in lines not quite true
Despite the modest acknowledgement of jarring passages and lines “not quite true”, what is immediately noticeable about ‘Survival’ is its technical accomplishment. The meshing of the patchwork renders punctuation obsolete; quoting Paul Klee’s comment about taking the line for a walk, Reid achieves something similar himself Set this formal challenge, his control is astonishing; ‘Survival’ maintains its rhythmical impulse even when the lines are pared down to just one stress. The poet “plung[es] and tug[s] taut” his and his wife’s art, memories of holidays and tending an allotment, meditations on death, on love and marriage, and on illuminated moments (“those unbidden moments/ out of the ordinary/ sentimental or visionary/ who’s to say”), and the pain of chemotherapy, while admitting the lasting flaw in the patchwork: the “crude seam” beside his wife’s breast, by which “painful feeling returns” even after recovery. The poem celebrates life, love and the therapeutic powers of art in the proximity of death: those remembered kisses when “the harsh chemical savour” lingered” in your mouth” are more affecting than any number of sweet caresses. ‘Survival’ is magnificently allinclusive, veering between “inexplicable elation” and “resented days” as the broken fragments “sing themselves into wholeness”. Together with ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’ it singles Reid out as a major poet, whether he rejects our manuscripts or not.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The