Poetry Chronicle 5: Geoffrey Holloway and Pauline Stainer
‘The reason is a part of nature and is controlled by it’, as we are part of nature, and our work governed by it, and its weathers. These mixed-weather dry-run-days for spring are a fitting time for some median-like activity, editing for example, or writing up a thesis. It is a time for ushering projects through final stages in order to save the summer for more thoroughgoing work, or the beach. I complete the editing of the late Geoffrey Holloway’s “Collected Poems” this month with the final act of writing its introduction.
Holloway is a very interesting poet about whom very little has been published, and whose works have largely fallen out of print. He was a powerful writer, and a striking phrase-maker and metaphorist. He also wrote wonderful vivid poems about his experiences in the Second World War – he was a member of the parachute medical corps. His work in this vein is unheroically factual. I think he and Keith Douglas would not have got on. Following the death of his first wife from cancer, Geoffrey Holloway married the poet Patricia Pogson (see this rather lovely photo).
Holloway began publishing quite ‘late’ – as say those who overvalue the clichés that side against age – but he always published to excellent effect. “Youth-envy versus poetry” is a problem that the examples of writers like Holloway, Robert Frost and Pauline Stainer defy. Too many new writers are transfixed by the matter of age versus achievement in literature, even to the point where it freezes their progress because they feel they have fallen behind their peers, or writers whom they revere. Publishers exploit youth as a selling point, but this has little connection with quality or achievement. This disabling condition arises partly from a cliché of feeling that writing is a young person’s game and the brilliant among us perish early.
It also arises partly from competitiveness. Sometimes, creative writing students study the birth-date of their favourite authors, calculate their age at first publication, and then vie to match them. This is destructive, not least because you open yet another route to failure, and one that has nothing to do with finding your natural rhythms for writing. Naturally, you should tap your creative energy as early as you can, but this might be during your forties or fifties. It is never too late to begin writing seriously, and there is no virtue in being published young, or before you or, more importantly your work, are ready.
As it is, some writers like Holloway grow freer as they get older. No pagefright for them; no time for it. Edward Said believes the “late style” of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’ (2006: 9). Writing of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commends ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’ (148). Mellowing—even literary mellowing—is thought of by some as virtuous, as is the damnation of “geniality”. Both are manipulative legislations foisted by new writers on their elders to seize the game off them. For some writers in fact, the incubation and gestation times for writing speed up with age, several books running through the cognitive assembly lines simultaneously. The apprenticeship is long over, yet they write with the ease of beginners. As Beckett wrote, ‘Death has not required us to keep a day free’. Like form, awareness of mortality is no prison to creation. You write against it: its restriction.
I wrote the following piece about Pauline Stainer’s selected poems “The Lady and the Hare” (acknowledgments again to “The Guardian”). It unpicks a lot of poetry-issues that I am thinking about in relation to Holloway just now.
Like Robert Frost before her Pauline Stainer published her first collection, as some critics are fixated in describing it, ‘late’, but by which they mean the poet’s forties. A recent blurb touted a male writer of forty-five as ‘one of our best younger poets’. There is a reversible rule at work – if the art doesn’t stand up displace blame by youth, or ostensible youth. In Stainer’s case, as with Frost, the waiting and hard work clearly delivered a deal more grit to the pearl. Her first volume “The Honeycomb” remains a precise and numinous work, distinctive not only for the range of subject and clarity of language but also by its accidental and interesting timing. Her critical reception occurred during one of the new poetry’s year of frenzy, 1989, which saw the release of a whole schoolyard of some our more interesting young poets (now ‘our best younger poets’). A deal of fun was had by a few; the hangover lasted a generation.
Here’s a curative from Wallace Stevens, one of Stainer’s talismanic influences, ‘The reason is a part of nature and is controlled by it’. Pauline Stainer’s poetry was distinctive among the new generation of poets for several strong reasons, not least the powers of her reason, the natural balance and maturity of her intelligence, and the fact that her poems were written in a way that most of the then current poetry wasn’t: her poetics was difficult, strange and challenging. The poems flouted Larkin by dipping voluptuously into the European myth kitty. They harried the new formalists by sticking with a sharpened free verse. They challenged the empiricists with a declaration ‘Intuition is the blade / of a swept vision; / in the overnight snow / the samurai / rinse their swords.’
In addition, her diction was violently eloquent, as violent and as earthed as the Ted Hughes of “The Hawk in the Rain”, “Lupercal” and “Wodwo”, but it was also almost polar in its clearness, and her language was plainly, thank goodness, not streetwise. She was also among the first poets of her time to engage with science with an alertness and open-mindedness that many of us in the scientific community respected. I was a scientist in the late ‘eighties, and it was joy to find a poet for whom science was more than something to be narrowly raided for a misunderstood term or mangled paradigm – to read somebody who recognised that perceptual precision and intelligent enquiry can live alongside passion, compassion and fascination with language.
But Stainer did something rarer, generous even: her work taught: it illuminated the questions of why poetry is such a possible vehicle for the perception that the world contains a commonality of senses, but equally how our perceptual worlds are shaded differently and so shade the world differently. ‘Good writers write; failed writers teach’ is one of those ego-supporting statements that ignore Milton’s homemade classroom (with enlightened syllabus and afternoon walks) or Ted Hughes helping set up the Arvon Foundation. What really fine writers like Pauline Stainer do is both write and educate, and they do so first and foremost within their poems. Her poetry teaches by example – Stainer’s polyvalent curriculum embraces ancient history, mythology, metaphysics, the visual arts and music, geography, natural philosophy and physics. Gustav Mahler desired that the symphony should contain the world. Stainer makes the same demand for poetry, then goes further in imaging the alternative, complementary worlds of past and future.
You could argue that this is the hope of any art form on a good day, especially if the artist is alert when the good day presents itself. But there is nothing more complicated than perception. Stainer’s material is language interacting with the imaginative truth of myth, and with the various degrees of significance and possibility offered by science. She sites her poetry smack on the veering demarcation between metaphysics and science: falsifiability. These aspects and doubts ramify through her subsequent collections “Sighting the Slave Ship” (1992) and “The Ice-Pilot Speaks” (1994) in which she questions of a Leonardo print ‘Is it the physiology / of the smile, / printed on silk / so thin / the image can be seen / from both sides // or the sleight / of quantum movement, / the verve / of her barely being there, / the fate of all those lost / probabilities // when given half a chance / she would swallow / the pearl of the moon?’
Stainer’s purpose has been rightly described as demonstrating that ancient worlds are of a piece: that old rituals still obtain, that old beliefs still govern instinct. This could sound a somewhat solemn enterprise but, like Charles Tomlinson or the late poet-scientist Miroslav Holub, her purpose is enlivened by the notion of serious play. By all means her work – like David Jones, Jorie Graham or Geoffrey Hill – can be thought to be difficult but it is not inaccessible and, like all these poets, one of the reasons is the sheer jouissance and bloody-minded verve of the artistic execution. Serious ends very often require playful processes and means: games with language can produce magical syntheses, plays, scientific breakthroughs, novels, equations and poetry. Stainer once declared, ‘I see how rapaciously eclectic some of [my poems] are. They could well jettison the academic. Notes, quotes, even questions throw up their own dry-ice. Maybe the probing intelligence should wear its seriousness with spring heels…’
In the 1996 collection “The Wound-dresser’s Dream” (the wound-dresser is John Keats in 1819 considering signing on as a ship’s surgeon) and “Parable Island” (1999) the sprung heeled Stainer is ever more playful in subject: Coleridge goes scuba-diving, and to Malta, Herman Melville jumps ship while, on the island of Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson dreams of his father and grandfather inspecting famous lighthouses in Orkney, weighing ‘the examined life, / the necessary exile, / against the way light behaves / between islands.’ And islands loom more like solid characters in these new and selected poems. Stainer was for a time her own Prospero, living on the Orkney island of Rousay. The resulting work is fairly sea-sprayed with the imagery of the shoreline, raised beach and anchorage. Not so much her parable island where ‘you could slip a blade / between the sea and the sky’, but an entirely physical and desired landfall for the sea-swallows that follow ‘the midnight sun / from pole to pole / as if absolving the dark’ and which ‘were there / before anything was, / unsung and beyond metaphor…’
“The Lady and the Hare” confirms Pauline Stainer as one of our best, certainly one of our wisest, poets. From island to mainland to continent, her poetic worlds have evolved larger and complex forms. They have begun colliding and producing Venn Diagrams of poems like the new sequence ‘A Litany of High Waters’ in which literal history and mythical story are fused together with that colder eyed, far North, and pearl-hard way of saying: ‘Everywhere, the colour of exile – / silica, sulphur // arctic foxes in their mottled summer blue, / ashes white unto harvest. // In the unspeakable interior / the rivers drop like axes. // Our old frostbite re-opened / through the white nights … Only then, did the falcons / fall out of the middle air’.