Vol 42 No 3
Review of Monk Gibbon and Stella Gibbons
This Insubstantial Pageant. Monk Gibbon, Phoenix House (ios. 6d.).
Collected Poems. Stella Gibbons, Longmans, Green & Co. (ios. 6d.).
Not long ago, an American poet who has on several occasions appeared in print, sent me four of his new works, one of which called Love in a Mirror begins:
“You are an orange, and
Only the sharp loveknife
Can free your juices.
(In the mirror are painted
Profundities; your face
Does not smile in image.)
Your belly is ripe, like
An old violin—therein sleep
Concerti for which there are
(In the mirror a naked id
Dances to distant music.) . . . etc., etc.
Now since it is as useless to preach to the unconverted as to the converted, I shall only state that if naked ids arouse a passionate response in you; if you thrill to, say, a colon placed between each word of a poem; or if you hold that a creative artist should hurtle madly forth in search of new art forms, then the work of Monk Gibbon will be as nothing to you. If, however, you believe that spontaneity is the essence of poetry and that a strong and shapely framework is absolutely requisite for the transnussion of a thought, then this poet will shine out for you like a fixed star in a sky murky with pseudo-intellectualism and even more synthetic angst. Neither Monk Gibbon nor, for that matter Stella Gibbons whose work I shall consider later, has fallen into the common error of attempting to be more than themselves; the consequence is that, for those who have ears to hear, they have far more than themselves to give.
Mount Ida was a prose autobiography which only a poet could have written. This Insubstantial Pageant is yet one more proof of what a very good poet we have in Monk Gibbon. Broadcasting about this collection, Austin Clarke said: “We never feel that the words come between Mr. Gibbon and his thought”, and this, it seems to me, is the highest praise that can be given to any poet, since, surely, the measure of his greatness lies in his ability to express his personal and spiritual vision in such a way as to touch the common chord. Briefly, the poet must be accessible; that is to say, he must share his creative instinct—and this is precisely what Mr. Gibbon does. He is a crystalline writer, subtle, yes, but never obscure; a craftsman whose craft seems effortless (which it certainly is not); a tradionalist whose traditionalism is exciting because it continually yields fresh and unexpected springs of beauty. He excels in that straitest of all forms, the sonnet, as, for instance, in Half Psalmist’s Limit with its echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the sestet, and in The Recompense:
“Have nothing, then, have nothing, yet have all;
Give back blind greed, deaf pride, dumb aching gain:
Carcase of hope give back with no more brawl,
Blind and mained selfhood, give this back again.
All in the one scale throwing, how light it swings
That once seemed heavy—heavy weighed as lead.
Heart’s bondage less her highest need, heart’s wings,
Stones that were stones indeed and not soul’s bread.
Receiving what? O what receive indeed?
What in exchange lain hid what field below?
Whence food to satisfy so hungry need,
Whence clothing—of such rags gone naked—now?
This field. This food. Clay-healed eye, late blind,
And listening ear, and wakened, welcoming mind.”
Here, as, indeed in all of Mr. Gibbon’s work, strength is most happily married to simplicity.
It is, however, the prose-poem which Monk Gibbon has made particularly his own, a form which in less sure hands might so easily have become pretentious and self-conscious, but which in his is of a classic purity. Consider these two:
We Whom that Sea Called
“We whom that sea called, and who have drawn its waters, we whom day saw a great way from the land and whom night found still drifting, coming again empty-handed, or almost so, remind you that one can remain a great time there and yet bring little. For, though there is no limit to the sea, beauty is not easily taken. Besides our nets are broken.”
Of Other Poets
“Though they found many words to write of one thing or another, and though they called heaven to witness that their love was made safe against all days to come, and would not likely perish, Time, that is very zealous searching all things out to destroy them, found their songs and made them silent; nor was their promise heard, nor the things they had thought made safe remembered.
“But I have spoken of my love for you hardly at all, and I have made my songs out of a few words, that Time perhaps in passing might not notice them.”
It is impossible, I think, to read these without being moved by their delicacy and restraint. I wish I had space to quote more; I can only hope I have said enough to cause readers to buy This Insubstantial Pageant for themselves, a collection which contains well over two hundred poems, not one of which fails. Why? Because Monk Gibbon is supremely fastidious, because these poems were written only because they had to be written, not for any other motive whatsoever. Integrity is the keynote of the true poet.
Work by Miss Stella Gibbons has already appeared in The Poetry Review, if not so frequently as that of Mr. Monk Gibbon. Her Collected Poems are marked by a sensuous appreciation of beauty and the unforced lyricism of a natural singer. Moreover, this book contains two outstanding satirical poems (as is only to be expected, since it was Stella Gibbons who laid low for ever the Sussex-earthy novel with one masterly sweep of the pen.) On no account miss Mrs. Fand smells the hydrangeas and A Fat Woman in Bond Street which begins:
Man died for this,
Christ died that these
Mottled and inward-turning knees
Might swell the web of Milanese.
Your swollen, gargoyle face to make
Satan coiled in an emerald brake,
And tempted Eve; and now his skin
Makes shoes to cram your hoofs within...
What shall I buy?
The world was made
That you might hang your purple skin
With amber and clear jade.
The earth is yours.
Young sperm-whales died
For bones to clamp your putty side;
Beasts of great strength and savage line
Died in their shame to make you fine.
Waddle complacently in the sun...
It is a thousand pities that Miss Gibbons who can write with such passionate intensity as this should have weakened and diluted many of her verses by using “thou” and “thee”, for example, and that she should have included many poems which are frankly unworthy of her. I plead with her to bear in mind what has befallen Tennyson in our own generation through the dangerous error of unselectiveness, and to weed her garden rigorously; half-a-dozen tares may quite fatally obscure row upon row of golden wheat.
- 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