February 03, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 1: Charles Tomlinson

Charles T

To open the series – Charles Tomlinson, one of England’s foremost poets who turned eighty last month. The photo was taken at his party. The essay appeared in “The Guardian Review”.

Tomlinson with Gabriel

England’s Glory

I‘ve heard some poets assert that, in the poetry business as in ‘business business‘, success creates success. Conversely, neglect breeds neglect. But what does that say about us, or our culture, if certain of our neglected poets are highly celebrated elsewhere in the world?

It says that the English audience for poetry is shameless in following the crowd; that we prefer to look inward, and abjure adventure in favour of our stable of home-made traditions, traditions which we then choose to misunderstand and misread anyway (there is much that is unconservative about our lively, internationalist and radical literatures and edgy traditions).

It also says that we fear to learn new ways of seeing and believing in case it exposes our suppositions about the art—or our poems indeed—as ignorant, second-hand or, at worst, third-rate. It alerts us that this is a very primal fear: important but temporary poetic reputations and critical judgements depend on various lies that must not be decoded. Yet who is this English audience for poetry but many of our own poets, tussling over the art form, its prizes and privations, like scorpions brawling in a corpse?

Meanwhile, the art advances elsewhere, and if you are fortunate enough to visit some of these elsewheres—America, Australia, Europe, Japan, Mexico—and meet their major poets and critics you may be knocked for six to learn that for them English poetry is a triangular constellation made up of Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, and Roy Fisher. Even Charles Causley, in the days following his passing, featured on more international radars for reputation than we in The Shire might have predicted.

The stock response to this type of view is often the xenophobic flourish of dismissal: we are wiser and they are not. And, fair enough, it does represent a refracted and exclusive take on British poetry of the past few years, one that doesn‘t take due cognisance of the great formal range and achievement of many new writers. That said, it it is a view, and it is widely held. And, taking again the international response to the death of Charles Causley, let’s ask ourselves, quietly: does it really take the death of one of our major poets to bring their reality and fineness into focus for English readers? Isn’t that something we used to blame on previous generations, damning them for their lack of foresight?

With that in mind, consider Charles Tomlinson.Tomlinson, born in 1927, is very much a unique voice in contemporary English poetry, and has been a satellite of excellence for the past fifty years. He is a satellite because he has chosen to work outside the cliques and so has created his own audience. He chose not to borrow an audience left over from some previous movement, nor has he compromised himself into becoming a poet more easily assimilated by the reader who prefers a poetry that simply corroborates their ostensibly liberal viewpoint.

Instead, the breadth of Tomlinson’s concerns, the passion and compassion of his intelligence, and the experimental power of his craft, mark him as a seriously good world writer, aligned with his friend, the late Octavio Paz. That’s why I feel a strong new volume from Tomlinson should be a cause for celebration. Yet coverage in this country has been somewhat scant, despite the strengths of his new work, not only in Skywriting but also Carcanet‘s other excellent volume The Vineyard Above the Sea (1999).

Thank goodness for us then that Tomlinson is a fighter, an energetic and creative artist and intelligent advocate of the poetry of other writers. His poetry and poetics are highly significant in that they have advanced the art as a way of seeing and voicing the physical world. He has also made a substantial contribution to an international view and practice of poetry, working with writers from many countries on jointly written forms such as the Japanese Renga. He is responsible for bringing to light the powerful work of many authors such as Attilio Bertolluci, Fyodor Tyutchev or César Vallejo; and backing and editing work by writers marginalised from the British mainstream such as the great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the Welsh poet David Jones.

But this is a microscopic sample of Tomlinson’s undertakings. It shows a poet who takes the artist’s civic and cultural responsibilities generously and gladly. Maybe we could do worse than learn from his example. Maybe his actions make too many poets appear ultimately self-interested. Maybe that’s partly the reason for the deliberate and deliberated neglect.

In Skywriting, his poetry continues to break ground in his concern for the environment, and his precise perception of the external natural world. He has a strong Wordsworthian regard and instinct for ecology and natural cycles, here writing of badger trails and also of ourselves by default.

These signs for silence
Dwell within the mind’s own silences
Breeding a mystery – mysterious, too,
Even when explanation has restored it
To a world not shaped by introspection
And to lives lived-out beside our own
Nocturnal and unseen.

His new volume contains some bravely experimental work, especially the sequence ‘Mexico’ which moves between forms, including a prose poem which movingly urges its focus to the house and garden of Octavio Paz ‘the poet who came here to die and to seek, he said, reconciliation beneath these trees with their eagles and beside the cool basin frequented by pigeons’. More moving still is an elegy to another good friend, Ted Hughes, in a poem fired by grief and affection and one which opens by echoing a poem by Hughes himself, in which a soldier shot in the trenches falls massively across the length of Britain. In Tomlinson’s poem, driving to the funeral, precise perception of people, nature, light, sound, combine with place, movement, and we become witness to the pain of that day:

T Hughes

It was a death that brought us south,
Along a roadway that did not exist
When the friendship was beginning death has ended.
How lightly, now, death leans
Above the counties and the goings-on
Of loud arterial England. I see
A man emerge out of a tent,
Pitched at a field’s edge, his back
Towards the traffic, taking in
The flat expanse of Sedgemoor, as if history
Had not occurred, the drumming tyres
Creating one wide silence.
Oaks stand beside their early shadows.
Sun makes of a man’s two shadow-legs
Long blades for scissoring the way
Across yet one more meadow, shortening it.

Tomlinson makes a poetry sown and rooted in place—whether his Gloucestershire home or a roadside in Mexico. As a poet of place and perception, as translator, advocate and editor, he is a most un-English poet (pace Larkin) and yet he is also the most rigorously English poet we have: an internationalist striding the Forest of Arden; an anarchist classicist; a passionate precisionist.

For these apparent oppositions are also a part of a great tradition which, in Tomlinson’s work, and his new volume, achieve balance, synthesis and wonderful expression. Join to this praise that he is also very funny, and I trust you have abandoned any reason not to buy the book. Let’s be proud of him.


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