No 5 - 1982
Nathaniel Tarn : A Review
ATITLAN / ALASHKA: selected poems and prose by NATHANIEL TARN new poems by NATHANIEL TARN and JANET RODNEY. Published by Brillig Works 1322 College Avenue, Boulder, Colorado 80302, USA. 308pp. US$8.95 (p/back).
This is an important book, not just because of the work it contains, but also because it raises vital questions about the very nature of poetry itself, about what a poem should be, about what poetry should concern itself with at this time. Should it be a narrow account of the personal life, or should it go beyond the individual and his experiences into a region that is more intellectually challenging and comprehensive, that embraces more of the very nature of our lives now ?
Such questions are especially important for readers in the UK to consider (or ought to be), because of the current devalued state of English poetry and most critical thinking about it. What passes for a poem (at least, in the eyes of the establishment) is usually a piece of anecdotal description without any sign of the use of much imagination in either language or thought. Take any poem by, say, D.J. Enright or Anthony Thwaite and then compare it with a work by Nathaniel Tarn. Even for a reader without any experience at all of reading poetry, it should be clear that something entirely different is going on in the Tarn piece. A reading of this current book by Tarn can show us all an alternative strategy at work, which, while it inevtitably makes mistakes, is definitively opening up new frontiers of subject matter, attitude and language.
First of all, though, it is important to see what this book actually is. It is a handsome volume to look at, 7in.wide, 10 in. high and 308 pages in length, with a deep red cover and black lettering below a sun and its rays embossed in gold and rising over the black curvature of the earth. This is a very suitable emblematic summary of the contents of this, Nathaniel Tarn’s eighteenth book publication, so far as I can count.
The first half of the book, ATITLAN (or Santiago de Atitlan in Guatemala, where Tarn has conducted much field research as an anthropologist), is 156 pages long and contains all Tarn’s previous works except for The Silences (1969), The Persephones (1974), The Microcosm (1977), 9 poems from Where Babylon Ends (1968), and the whole of two books, Lyrics for the Bride of God (1975) and The House of Leaves (1975) - the former, now out of print, is entirely a unity in its own right and probably could not have been incorporated into the present volume, and the latter is, I believe, still available from the Black Sparrow Press. With these exceptions, everything that Tarn has written is present within these covers, so that what we have here is virtually a ‘collected poems’.
The second half of the book, ALASHKA (or Alaska), 151 pages long and contains new poems written collaboratively between between 1976 and 197% as near as I can make out, by both Nathaniel Tarn and Janet Rodney. Each of these poems is, the authors state, a jointly created fiction and any resemblance between the voices you hear, and real, flesh and blood authors is purely coincidental. Since some of the poems are headed NT to JR and JR to NT it is hard to take this disclaimer with total seriousness, even though the quality of the poems is in no way affected.
The nature of the work within this book is harder to describe than the physical appearance of the book itself. I am going to try and suggest what the book’s importance is, not by quoting yards of poetry from it, but by making some statements about the issues it raises. I hope that anyone who reads this will then check what I have to say by buying the book and reading it.
In his review of Gustaf Sobin’s poetry in SHEARSMAN #1, (p.86, para 3), Philip Crick asked two very important questions : How ought a poet now to assimilate the facts, relationships, hypotheses, and ways of seeing, provided by Science and Technology, to his own imaginative legacy ? How ought he to assimilate them to his own realm of metaphor without defacing the one, or betraying the other ? To Science and Technology we might add the twin concepts of History and Society to make the equation complete.
Without an attempt to form answers to these questions, poetry is destined to remain of no real necessity to any of us living in these last 20 years of the 20th century. Without trying to find the answers in his work, no poet worthy of the name can be considered to be writing poetry that is either contemporarily valid, or of relevance to the society we inhabit now. Without assimilating all of our present concerns, poetry will remain merely parochial, as it mainly is in the UK at the moment (where critical confusion and lack of any thought about the real purpose of creative literature has lead in recent years to the endless production of bloodless little artifacts which further no one’s understanding of anything more complicated than their authors’ own egos).
Nathaniel Tarn is one of the few poets alive today who is trying to find an answer to Crick’s questions. The publication of ATITLAN/ALASHKA is therefore an important event that puts all of us at last in a position from which it becomes possible both to evaluate the nature of Tarn’s answers to the two questions and to make positive statements about his total achievement as a poet.
Tarn’s own experiences in life, as man and artist, have played a crucial role in the solutions he has worked out, and is still working out. First of all, his training and practice as an anthropologist (he holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago) have helped him to inject into his work a larger vision of the world than most poets ever acquire. The study of a culture (in his case, Guatemala and the Zutuhil Maya Indians), both in its present and its past, have given him a measure of man’s place in his world, his connections to his past, his place now and his future. From the particular, as Tarn has learned, the general can be adduced.
Secondly, Tarn’s work as a literary publisher and translator has been of great benefit to his work. His efforts in these two fields - I’m thinking of his founding in 1967 of the famous Cape Editions in conjunction with Jonathan Cape, and the Cape Goliard Press, as well as his translations of Neruda and others - have widened both his and our knowledge of other literatures and extended the scope of reference of his writing. It is clear that his humanist understanding interprets everything that he reads and finds a place for it and informs everything that he writes. It is worth pointing out, too, that his understanding of publishing is not limited to one particular genre - his experience here has been of both the ‘establishment’ and the ‘independent press’ kind, with perhaps a greater leaning in recent years to the latter.
Probably the most important fact of all in Tarn’s development as a poet has been his transplantation to America in 1970 and the consequent researches into all its cultures, ancient and modern, that he has been able to conduct at first hand. A certainty of voice, an assurance, appears in his work after that date, which differentiates it in kind from the work he produced in the 1960s.
With the publication of Lyrics for the Bride of God and The House or Leaves, the first fruits of his American stay, Tarn becomes a major voice in poetry. The ‘narrative’ poems in the latter volume are amazing tours de force which find a successful fusion of the objective and the subjective. These two volumes indicate the twin strains in Tarn’s poetry - the first drawing heavily on his anthopological knowledge and bringing into poetry a whole new subject matter and manner; the second using more accustomed themes but with the certainty and sureness of tone of a man who has really lived through and understood what he is talking about; both suggesting new roads for the poetry of our age to travel down. Tarn’s pre-1970 works - for instance, Where Babylon ends , October , The Great Odor of Summer, Choices - begin in the light of these later volumes to look like the work of a man who was still trying to find himself, individual as they seemed at the time and valuable as they still are.
Up to 1970 the vital key was missing. The nature of Tarn’s selections from his work in the first half of ATITLAN/ALASHKA and the whole of the Alashka section give us the answer to what ‘Tarn found in uprooting himself across the Atlantic: a sense of place, of belonging even in a mixed and disparate culture, a background from which to project himself successfully forth.
Landscape, geography, and the history and culture of that landscape, that geography, of the societies living there now and that lived there once, all of them present in its present, are the key factors for Tarn, a re-creation and re-invigoration of his own roots. The search for meaning, for authenticity in his work and his life is the search for a place to which he can relate in every possible way - not just by being there, living there, but by understanding how it became what it is now and what it is to become.
All this may seem to be an impossible task for any poet to undertake. To see what Tarn has made of all this, the reader should be directed to The Beautiful Contradictions (and its notes). From that poem and a reading of A Nowhere for Vallejo (which is more deliberate and limited in its references) , he should progress to Lyrics for the Bride of God which is in itself a book length poem of remarkable consistency, a living demonstration to all those who object that the long poem is dead and cannot be written in our age. After that, the reader should pass on to what is a key text for any understanding of Tarn’s work and which concludes the Atitlan section of the present book: Toward any Geography/Toward any America Whatsoever.
This remarkable prose poem, summarizes Tarn’s attitudes to his varied material and his continued use of it, and relates together both the East and the West, as well as Themes from his earlier and more personal work and the themes (as well as the reasons for them) of the larger structures mentioned in the preceeding paragraph. Tarn’s sense of the re-creation of his material from what he finds around him is contained in the last three paragraphs of this work:-
I cannot, in motion, accept that America was built at all, ever. I accept that it is being built now, out of the sense of ‘our day’. It is not we who killed instead of loving the Red Man the night has white linings in some of these souls. Galileo ? Science was never as dangerous to society as Poetry is about to be dangerous now.
Guild of the Iron Age. Poets are falling from the trees in the bitter autumn of this economy. Who shall protect ? There is so much to be done in common, so much in the very method of our gifting here, could we but transcend irritabilities. Oh race of irritable men, soften your selfhoods! Eurydice of ashes, resume our needs !
Towards any geography. Towards any America whatsoever.
This poetic statement of his attitudes, his needs even, leads directly into Alashka, Tarn’s latest attempt to refashion the world, to find a new ‘authenticity’. While the earlier works in the book require close attention from, and are extremely demanding on, a reader and need a high degree of both literacy and sympathy, Alashka employs simpler, more direct language and the subject matter is more accessible. In this story of discovery, Tarn s voice is the that of a man who has learned his trade and is now employing the knowledge he has gained from his earlier studies to create a new poetry, direct, encompassing, vital and contemporary, yet which still manages to bind up the present with the past and relate to all our present concerns in the world we have made for ourselves. Poetry like this is needed.
Tarn’s search has been a search for a successful new subject matter (as well as a language to suit it), that would not be personally limiting, and yet would be culturally extensive. His sense of what a poet is, or should be, of what poetry is, or ought to be, informs the whole of Atitlan/Alashka. He is not afraid to take great risks to find the answers he requires - risks that sometimes lead him through banality and back again. He has, at the very least, made his stance as a writer quite clear. What you would expect from Tarn is made explicit in Montemora #5, where he opened a debate on the state of poetry and publishing in the USA with a letter to the magazine’s editor. Tarn began this letter by saying:
We lack polemical writing you say. To write such, one must be at white heat. Heat strong enough to overcome lifetimes of caution, careful research, knowledge of what has already been said so that it doesn’t get repeated. Strong enough to eliminate care about winning or losing. To eliminate the determination to be fair to everyone, to get it right 100%, or else be silent.
Well, Tarn has not been silent as a poet. And he has made his attitude to his craft quite clear a little later in the same letter :-
When I speak of poetry, I refer to a maximal investment in language for the sake of language on the part of an individual who should be - but isn’t always - prepared for a minimal return in goods, in services, in status. When I speak of a poet I mean one who has married his/her art, as so defined, beyond the grave. This means something more than one who has had x number of poems accepted in y number of magazines in the last z years.
From such statements it is, I think, quite clear what we should expect from Tarn. As man and poet, he is not afraid to take his stand and be counted. A reading of ATITLAN/ALASHKA should prove this to anyone who cares to make the effort; as it should also prove that he is indeed a poet who, in finding a new poetic subject-matter and a language to express it, has also found a way ‘to assimilate the facts, relationships, hypotheses, and ways of seeing, provided by Science and Technology’ - and also by History and Society - ‘to his own imaginative legacy’. It is a legacy for which we should be grateful, since Tarn has achieved it by extending and enriching his ‘own realm of metaphor’ without betraying his imagination. I hope that many poeple will buy this important book, encounter the work of a great poet, and extend thereby their own conceptions of what poetry really is, what it can be, and of the world they live in.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- 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, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- 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