No 59 - Spring 2008
Senior poets and a contrasting younger author
Grevel Lindop compares work by Peter Porter, Michael Hamburger and Diana Syder
Shoestring Press £5.00
Circling the Square: Poems 2005–2006
Anvil Press £7.95
Smith/Doorstop Books £7.95
Reading these three books, I had a strong sense that I was looking at the recent past of poetry and also its future, or one of its futures. Here are two books from important senior poets – in Michael Hamburger’s case, sadly, his last, for he died in June – and one from an established poet, middle-aged but seeming more than a generation younger, a collection that is dynamized by science and technology as well as by landscape and archaeology. Across the three collections the sense of continuity is strong, but so is a feeling of change.
The heroic couplets of Peter Porter’s opening poem, ‘Rendering a Rochester Fragment’, immediately establish a characteristic mode in which verse is classical and highly structured, and attitudes are satirical and moral but also tinged with a certain relish for anarchy and chaos. Writing a series of verse comments on the Earl of Rochester’s enigmatic unfinished twelve-line poem about the seduction of a woman, Porter creates a wry contemporary relevance for every line.
The poem’s sexual ‘yielding’ finds Porter
waiting at the Specialist’s among
Old Money Rites and Listings of the Young,
To learn in turn what rusting of the frame
Has made Libido light and traction lame...
Rochester’s warning that the gods themselves might fall from heaven provokes Porter’s speculation that if Adam and Eve had looked back on leaving Eden, they might well have seen God, or the gods, / ‘walk off the property and wave / To their dependents – sorry, you must save / Yourselves.’ As Porter reflects, ‘The wide abyss we have inherited / Looks ever darker.’
Now in his late 70s, Porter has always been both an intelligent and an intellectual poet, assuming a wide familiarity with European culture, as well as tending to surprise readers with intriguing glimpses of the Australia he left 55 years ago. Eighteen Poems (appropriately his 18th collection) asks for much thought and careful reading, containing references not only to Rochester but also to, among many others, Rothko and Haydn, De Quincey and Henry James, Swift, Addison and Andrea del Castagno, as well as to Goncharov’s marvellous comic novel Oblomov, to Star Wars and the poet’s own ancestor, the architect Robert Porter.
The poems make few concessions to the reader’s possible ignorance, and perhaps in these days of the internet that isn’t necessary. I suspect that not many in the UK will make much of ‘How the Eureka Stockade Led to Boggo Road Gaol’ without checking on Google (as I’ve just done) to learn that the Eureka Stockade was a revolt by gold miners in Ballarat against harsh government treatment and lack of representation, which led directly to universal white male suffrage in Australia. I also needed a visit to Google to ascertain that (in ‘Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy’) Porter refers to ranunculus as ‘The flower which gave Browning his worst rhyme’ because, in ‘Fifine at the Fair’, he rhymed it, bizarrely, with ‘Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle-us’. And I’m a lover of Browning, whom more people nowadays should read.
Well, perhaps I should have known both things already. But there’s a sense in this book that Porter doesn’t very much care what his readers think. It’s a personal book, and many of the poems have a valedictory note about them. Viewing the Tarpeian Rock in Rome, from which traitors used to be hurled to death, Porter finds himself reflecting ‘The scene reminds you, you will make the leap’. ‘Opus 77’ meditates on Haydn’s last, unfinished group of string quartets, reflecting that
What works you did will be yourself when you
Have left the present, just as everything
The past passed to the present must become
A terrible unstoppable one blend
Of being there (the world) and not to be.
Porter ends the poem with advice which must be meant, first of all, for himself:
Like Haydn abandoning his last quartet;
Need neither saving nor redeeming; greet
The world of breathing and the silent world
With the same material gesture – a bed-post
Now the herm of lost vicinity.
The image of the bed-post looming mistily as guardian of the frontier between the worlds is a beautiful and haunting one, but again it only works if the reader knows that a herm in classical Greece was a pillar carved with the head of Hermes, guide of souls into the world of the dead, used as a field boundary-marker.
Interestingly, although willing to evoke the resonances of classical religion, Porter gives short shrift to Jesus, seeming blind to poetic and symbolic resonance in Biblical miracles and seeing them merely as supposed distortions of physics. Speaking in the persona of a crumb of bread from the feeding of the five thousand, he remarks:
It’s easy now
That I’ve been swallowed to admire resource
Like his, but still it sticks in my own throat
That he could bend the rules which by next day
His followers would have to honour.
What actually sticks in Porter’s throat, one suspects, is the crowd-controlling authority claimed by religion. The last words of the poem strike, I think, a characteristically Australian note of scepticism and independence, before modulating into the tones of a more sensitive and classically poised philosophy:
I prophesy to you my human troop
That you will stay dependent, though the Lord,
Whichever Lord, explains he’s come to set
You free. Your throat and stomach are in thrall
To clockface and the staring sky:
I gave you life, a special offer not
To be repeated – weep you therefore and
Question every tear that you let fall.
Eighteen Poems is an interesting and challenging footnote to an important poet’s career, but it’s not an altogether engaging book. There’s a dryness and a distance about it, as well as some strained syntax and linguistic awkwardness. It compels respect; but it’s hard to imagine that any publisher would have accepted it from a poet who was less than famous already.
Michael Hamburger’s Circling the Square also seems to be saying goodbye; and truly enough, since he died soon after its publication. Like Porter’s book, Hamburger’s contains a number of satires, but it also gathers a good number of the meditations on nature and time which were always an important element in his poetry. Circling the Square is a gentle book whose virtues reveal themselves slowly. It’s perhaps a pity that Hamburger chose to open the volume with ‘Air on a Shoe-String’, a mildly amusing lament about the present state of culture and its effects on poetry. ‘Into my streetsoiled hat’, Hamburger writes, picturing himself as a street musician,
Hardly one coin is dropped,
Rarely a bite for the belly –
Because their ears are stopped
With so much talkie-telly –
Tele- that’s lost its vision,
Doles out celebrity
Mixed up beyond derision,
For this and this and that,
All grown indifferent,
Mashed into salesman-chat.
One sees what Hamburger means, and a bad and corrupt culture is always worth satirising, but this opening poem’s tone has a (surely unintended) note of self-pity. The verse is undistinguished, and to speak of ‘talkie-telly’ risks conveying an unfortunate impression that the poet has only recently discovered moving pictures with recorded sound. Hamburger had no need to caricature himself as a fogey. Britain’s greatest translator of German poetry, with splendid versions of Hölderlin, Celan, Enzensberger and many other poets to his credit, besides the standard translations of prose works by his friend WG Sebald, he was also the author of the single most illuminating survey of 20th-century European poetry, The Truth of Poetry, a book which can be read from cover to cover for sheer pleasure. It adds to the interest of his work that, despite his German birth and vast reading of European literature, Hamburger’s own poetry seems very English, coming closest perhaps in sensibility and language to that of Edward Thomas.
If the opening ‘Air’ misfires, one should simply skip it and go on to the other, solider works on offer. Hamburger was always an acute observer of nature, his vision informed by the tactile, lived experience of an internationally renowned gardener and a grower of rare and threatened varieties of apple. Circling the Square contains a profusion of poems about the Suffolk landscape and its seasons, brought into sharp focus by the impending prospect of death. Red admirals, at the ‘End of October, frost / Holding off in daylight’, flock for a late feast on the juice of rotting pears on the compost heap; Hamburger watches them ‘gather, dip, / Fluttering’ and speculates that they ‘will never have known the name / Of the wings we call them by’. In ‘Late January Morning’, he notes:
Against this coldest wall,
High window’s misted panes
Last summer’s last-lingering rose
With petals half-unpacked
Waves to a cryptic season,
None we can call our own...
In ‘East Suffolk Lights, Late November’, ‘A climber decades old / Against moon coldness opens rose-coloured petals’. Hamburger’s attentive love of nature shows itself everywhere, as does his eye for colour, texture and movement – despite the cataracts he mentions in one poem.
A presence that crops up in several poems is a mulberry tree, whose story is sketched in towards the end of ‘Domestic’. The mulberry, ‘centenarian at least, …seduced us buyers’, making the poet and his wife owners of a house ‘nobody sane would touch’. Later, we learn:
An infamous hurricane laid our landmark flat,
Half the root ripped, the bulk and leafage sprawling
On flowerbed, lawn and path – a surgical case,
One upright branch only spared from sawing, lopping
In hope that the half-root, trunk’s torso now prostrate
Might still sustain just that.
And indeed it did – and ‘made more of less, / New growth, new fruitfulness’.
Hamburger clearly identifies with the tree, and its survival against odds and fruitfulness in old age make it an appropriate emblem to place at the centre of the book.
‘Domestic’ as a whole is a delightful and intriguing poem, a kind of ‘natural history’ of Hamburger’s house, explored with all its oddities and ‘medley of anachronisms’: the breadoven flue where the cats like to curl up, the 1920 studio, the partial central heating system that burst and soaked precious papers, the Nissen hut used for storage, with its roof of ivy, the water-pump marked 1770: ‘a date not indifferent to me, never mind why’, says Hamburger mysteriously. Could it be because that was the year when Wordsworth, Hölderlin and Beethoven were all born?
A sequence of poems called ‘Aging’ runs at intervals through Circling the Square. A kind of sporadic journal, it stoically records observations, dreams, and moments of vision (there is certainly a debt to Hardy, who is praised in ‘Aging VIII’) from the three years covered by the book. Sometimes these are vertiginous, as in ‘Aging IX’:
In leaden light of another year
A whirlpool opens on ground that was home
To suck in the grasses that grew there,
Bulbs proved perennial, saplings for expectation;
Then the relics that furnished a house…
Down go the rows of books…
The piles, the files of papers –
Food for the vacuum, sheet by sheet.
It rips from the walls a lifetime’s pictures,
Reduces to debris conjunctions held dear.
There is pathos in these poems, but so vivid is the evocation of the individual presence and physical reality of things and places that the effect is not depressing. Rather, a sense is conjured up of the world’s inexhaustible richness – despite Hamburger’s proper dismay at the recent over-exploitation of the earth.
With all his gifts, Hamburger is not, I think, a great verse technician. His language is unremarkable, and he is too fond of cutting syntactic corners by omitting ‘and’ and ‘or’ in ways that sometimes obscure the clarity of his statements. You will probably not find lines make you catch your breath, or that lodge in your memory at once. Yet this book has a mellow, haunting quality: a little sad, a bit dark, but also glowing with wintry life and drawing you back (as it has already drawn me) to re-read certain poems again and again.
Peter Porter’s book contains a melancholy poem subtitled ‘Death and the Modem’; Michael Hamburger writes bitterly (in ‘Electronocuted’) that whereas a philosopher such as Pascal was ‘notable once because he could think’,
Electronics do that for us,
Begin as a toy, still wondered at,
Explored with fumbling fingers,
Then whiz us from first to second childhood...
One senses a dividing line (what journalists like to call a ‘watershed’) between generations here. Whilst the older poets are cautious or grumpy about computers, Diana Syder sees them as a part of the familiar environment, offering rich landscapes to be explored through metaphor, or themselves a source of metaphor to apply to other things. In ‘Look Inside a Computer’ she flips to and fro between glimpses of a nighttime city seen from a plane and the interior of a processing unit:
estuaries of input and output
through diodes the size of seeds
and capacitors that are pinpricks of silver
between rack array and heat sink,
where nothing winks or twitters
softly any more thanks to
the invisible properties of silicon.
City and computer are both seen as manifestations of the same human urge for system and elaboration, an external reflection of the patterning in the brain itself, and ultimately of the brain’s thoughts:
You might be looking at synapses
in your own dreaming brain
…you’ll happily spend hours
between cities watching thoughts
that pass and go unrecorded,
like a plane’s shadow on the ground.
The attractive delicacy of that final image demonstrates that Syder isn’t an insensitive writer trying to blind us with science; rather, she’s a wide-eyed observer who finds the technology around her, like nature, a subject for investigation, observation, and wonder.
The lines quoted above about diodes, capacitors and heat sinks may suggest to unscientific readers that Syder is either showing off or saying things which, however meaningful, they won’t understand. This would be unfair. Diodes and capacitors didn’t come in with computers: diodes were invented before 1900 and the capacitor dates, believe it or not, from 1745 (thank you again, Google). The odd thing is that we’re just not used to seeing them mentioned in poetry. And if our GCSE (or ‘O’ level) science doesn’t tell us exactly what they are, Syder uses the words in such a way that their texture and general connotations will still do the job well enough.
Indeed, she recognizes one of the things I’ve been waiting years to see poets exploit properly: the weird and wonderful music of those polysyllabic scientific names. She gets to grips with them in ‘Boolean Logic’, where she recounts the mathematician’s plan for ‘an investigation of the laws of thought’ and finds the notion that ‘a great idea is a pin of light… much more pleasing to think of’ than the physical neurotransmitters in our brains:
molecules hauling lukewarm cargoes
through plasma in the sticky dark;
noradrenalin, acetylcholine, gamma aminobutyric acid –
even their names are supertankers
that cannot manoeuvre quickly.
Yet I’m sure she enjoyed getting those words into her poem and relished their enormous, wriggling oddity. After all, why shouldn’t poets catalogue amino acids or polymers with the same relish that Homer has in cataloguing ships, or Blake in listing the 12 Sons of Albion and their brides? Poetic exploration of science and the mythologies it offers needn’t commit us to a clunkily materialistic world view. Science is there to be wondered at, played with and mixed with whatever else comes to hand.
The ‘string’ of Diana Syder’s title relates to superstring theory, whereby ‘the smallest entities in the universe’ are not particles but strings – entities that have a length, and which manifest as different ‘particles’ depending on the frequency at which they vibrate in 10-dimensional space. Syder doesn’t ‘understand’ this and nor does she expect us to. Instead, it becomes simply the starting-point for a meditation:
a fine art student makes a dress from cobwebs
and wears it in an updraft of gravities;
the supersymmetry of larksong
is an outpouring that winds me in
and the nature of the stuff we live through
unravels to a one-dimensional thing
too thin to shine. Cut it and we spring apart.
I can’t help feeling, though, that Syder’s explorations could go deeper, could engage at a richer imaginative level with all this. The most powerful work in String is the sequence ‘The Lookout Post’, surveying the different buildings of an industrial estate in the Peak District which stands on the site of a World War II lookout post and munitions dump. Reflections on the scarred landscape are intercut with wartime memories from local people: the musician soldier fresh from Dunkirk who slept on the floor and literally couldn’t stop playing the piano once he spotted the upright in his temporary billet; ‘incendiaries / lining the road into Bakewell.’ Another fine short sequence features as ‘Arbor Low’, a series of meditations on a Derbyshire stone circle. The scene would have commended itself to Michael Hamburger, and evokes a similar style from Syder:
The exposed knuckles of the land
glisten in the same blue light as my hand.
Jupiter is clear. A spangled stand of blackthorn
haunts itself with thorns of frost.
If trees link earth and sky then so do I…
Syder has sensitivity, an interesting eye for a subject and a wide range of interests. Yet I’m troubled by a lack of interesting rhythms, a shortage of the real poetic magic that can make a line or a stanza seem as perfectly minted as a leaf or a shell. Indeed, I miss it in all three of these books. Porter has a strong line in iambics but it’s inflexible, rigid. Hamburger and Syder on the other hand don’t, ultimately, seem very interested in rhythm if they can get their meaning across. Yet it’s the rhythm of a poem that can perfect the meaning, render it unforgettable. It’s a hard thing to say, but I find myself asking if any of these poets has really taken quite enough care with the fine detail of what they wrote in these books. Is the making of superb verse – the art of Robert Graves, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop – a lost art? I do hope not.
- 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