No 24 - Autumn 2002
'An atlas drained of its delicate colours' Andrew Neilson reviews The Ice Age by Paul Farley (Picador £7.99)
Observers of poetry in England over the last twenty or thirty years may oft have wondered what went wrong after the death of Philip Larkin. Where once there had been a steady line, a deep tradition, of the English lyric voice - you know, the meditative, nostalgic, formal, Wordsworthian thing - there was now a sudden impoverishment. For the majority of the twentieth century there had been Hardy, Edward Thomas, swathes of Auden - although Wystan was too grand in range to be pigeonholed as simply English - and, yes, Larkin; but successors were desperately hard to find. Other than the claims of early Tony Harrison (sadly fallen into Augustan doggerel) and James Fenton (sadly fallen into plain doggerel), English poetry was dominated by the gimmicky (Craig Raine), the dull (Andrew Motion), the interesting-but-Teutonic-and-very-Lowellish (Michael Hofmann) and the parodies produced by Wendy Cope. Ted Hughes, meanwhile, presents us with a one-man awkward squad as, rightly or wrongly, he had bypassed centuries of English poetry for something altogether more elemental in nature. Instead, most of the genuine poetry was being written by the Northern Irish, who were taking the tradition and subverting it from within, and even Larkin himself had acknowledged begrudgingly that Seamus Heaney was the only young poet he had any time for.
Things changed with the advent of Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, particularly Maxwell, who has written increasingly in this particularly English vein - although his syntactic originality at times obscures just how much he owes to the more traditional. They brought back an energy to English poetry - in part from sheer bravura and in part from Muldoon and assorted American poets. Paul Farley, whose debut The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You, was published in 1998, took this development further. Where Armitage and Maxwell played in their different ways with form and syntax, Farley comfortably inhabited the pentameter line and, in his debut at least, seldom varied from it. He was a writer clearly influenced by Northern Irish examples such as Heaney, Mahon and Muldoon, while the American poets imprinted in his work were those who owe most to the English lyric - such as Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. But Farley was also a writer steeped in English poetry itself and the ghost of Larkin presided in a surprisingly benign manner over his work.
Take for example, 'A Minute's Silence' from The Boy from the Chemist. This poem is haunted by the tragedy at Hillsborough football ground when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death. It features a digression where the poet recalls a childhood memory of finding birds' eggs (including those of the lark) which in turn recalls another poem on a working class disaster. This is none other than 'The Explosion' by Philip Larkin, where one of the doomed miners discovers the nest of a lark and is seen at the visionary end "still carrying the eggs unbroken". The Ice Age, Farley's new collection, opens with 'From a Weekend First', where the poet takes a Virgin train journey through England ("the promise of a university town, / its spires and playing fields") and comes away with a Larkinesque performance in the style of 'Here' or 'The Whitsun Weddings'. The poem which then follows, '11th February 1963', extends his influences further back and is set during the terrible winter of that year. It centres around the coincidence that the Beatles were recording 'Twist and Shout' at Abbey Road while a mile away Sylvia Plath committed suicide in Primrose Hill. On that day, London is found to be "held inside a glacier", which is eerily reminiscent of a classic poem that also features synchronicity, tragedy and large bodies of ice - none other than Thomas Hardy's poem on the sinking of the Titanic, 'The Convergence of the Twain'. Thus the alert reader could continue to draw allusions and involuntary echoes from Farley's poems, if he or she was so minded.
It is Farley's level, meditative voice which most signals his deep involvement with the English lyric tradition. The typical Farley lyric is concerned with an object of contemplation where the poem follows his thoughts as they unspool gently from their source. Take for example, any number of poems in The Ice Age: 'A Tunnel', 'Diary Moon', 'Umbrella', 'Negatives'. One of the best of these lyrics is 'Phone Books'. Here Farley paces his pentameter lines in a seemingly straightforward discussion of their mundane subject:
You find them in the dark of meter cupboards,
in kitchen drawers, part of the scenery
left over from the last lot, like the sliver
of soap on the enamel, the flowery curtains.
Farley's subjects are utterly normal, boring even, but he is committed to a poetry which turns the familiar into the rich and strange. In a characteristic turn, Farley's powers of observation become more surreal, less expected:
Soon, this aerial photograph of print
has shape and contour - terraces of Smith
and Green, abutments of Honeycombe
and Read (see also Reed or Reid), exotica
in the columns of Q and X and Z - an atlas
drained of its delicate colours...
It is that final line quoted which points to one of Farley's American influences, Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop was one of the pioneers of this type of lyric and her first mature poem of close observation was 'The Map' which posits that "more delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors".
Farley's fascination with the domestic (see his tribute to Vermeer - and table mats - 'An Interior') and the description of the everyday is also haunted to some extent by Seamus Heaney. The more formal Heaney of Fieldwork or Seeing Things is perhaps the poet Farley most resembles on the page in his use of pentameter stanzas and half-rhymes. But whereas Heaney takes a thing or things, such as 'Oysters' in Fieldwork or 'A Basket of Chestnuts' in Seeing Things, and sets about conjuring up their essence in his subtle word-music, Farley's approach is fundamentally different. In his own way Farley is a true postmodern, and is incapable of the kind of act of faith that Heaney achieves in his descriptive lyrics. Whereas Heaney has a Platonic confidence in the world, Farley engages in surface and reference. The Ice Age tellingly acknowledges this in one of the collection's finest poems, 'Joseph Beuys', which is worth quoting in its entirety:
To write about elemental things, to render
the world in its simpler smells and shapes and textures,
to describe how tallow collects under the finger-
nails, how felt feels against bare skin
is not, I repeat, not an option
having lived several times removed from the world as itself,
although it can do no harm to imagine
myself as the stricken airman
carted indoors by the local women
who'd take it in turns attending to the matter
of rubbing in the Stork SB and Flora,
the Golden Churn and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
The poker-faced delivery of those final lines does not disguise the sad sense of diminishment that the poem evinces and which eddies throughout The Ice Age as a whole.
This is a thoroughly Millennial collection, and in fine poems such as 'The Ages' - "the globe/of a paper light-shade caught in headlights / was a Golden Age symbol of truth and reason; / then a cold planet again" - Farley wrestles with themes similar to those that have energised Simon Armitage's poetry since The Dead Sea Poems. There is more exhaustion than awe however permeating Farley's work and his melancholy reflections. In the longest poem of The Ice Age, Farley comes to fiercer, flickering life for a brief instant. 'Thorns' is, fortuitously, a product of his time at Dove Cottage, and engages directly with the Wordsworthian legacy in its setting. The poet is out walking in the Lakes, whereupon he stumbles across a thorn bush. Where Wordsworth sees himself in Nature, Farley has Nature speak directly to him, as the bush pipes up:
'Thorns' is a clever exposition of working class guilt, the conceit of the poem indebted to Anthony Hecht's brilliant 'The Ghost in the Martini', where another teenage self upbraids the author and reminds him of his origins. Yet for all that Farley audaciously rewrites the Romantic poem - with his play on Man v Nature, memories of childhood and the prerequisite visionary moment - 'Thorns' is not entirely successful. It is perhaps too contrived and relies on certain devices which have been rendered over-familiar by Farley's contemporaries, such as the list of book titles in one stanza (see Don Paterson's 'The Alexandrian Library'). Nonetheless, The Ice Age as a whole signals a notable development in Farley's poetry. Increasingly ambitious in conception, more personal in tone, this is high calibre poetry. If you care anything about contemporary poetry in England, then The Ice Age is essential reading.
Remember me? I know I'm looking rough.
It's me, you silly cunt: you if you'd stayed
back there until the bulldozers moved in.
I'm everything you might but never made
of yourself, a man stripped to his fighting weight.
I'm what you like to think you've shaken off,
though every place you've ever been since then
has seen something of me along the way.
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