Skip to content

Retrospectives 1: Thomas, Moore, and Craig.

By Peter Riley.

Dylan Thomas
The Collected Poems
New Centenary Edition, edited by John Goodby.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2014 | 440pp hardback | £25.00 $23.25

Nicholas Moore
Selected Poems
Edited by John Lucas and Matthew Welton. Introduction by Mark Ford.
Shoestring Press 2014 | 250pp paperback | £14.99 $17.85

Maurice Craig
Poems
Selected and edited by Andrew Carpenter.
Liberties Press 2011 | 74pp. hardback | £16.99 $16.27

DTCPIN MOST CRITICAL accounts of English1 poetry, the period called “the 1940s” has for a long time been considered a disaster. The conventional history is that all was going well enough with Auden, Spender, Day Lewis et al., and suddenly under the cover of war a race of demented poets were let loose who produced incomprehensible ravings which cannot be taken seriously for a moment. In fact the 1940s was not a disaster zone for poetry, it was a disaster zone for criticism, which was caused initially by moves in academia, especially Cambridge, to apply the established forensic expertise in locating literary frauds through the centuries to current production, thus assuming the right to intervene, with praise and blame as appropriate, in the production and reception of new poetry. This was the disaster it was bound to be, in which a bunch of Cambridge lecturers, led by F.R. Leavis, attempted to extend their coverage of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into the present tense, having already savaged Swinburne, Tennyson, Shelley, Hardy and others. The whole stress was and always had been on evaluation, discrimination, quality control, from a platform of moral responsibility through formal coherence (already Dylan Thomas must have sensed a tank regiment advancing towards him across the fens).

What started as a polemical position [in the forties] became a policing, and was so successful that it virtually wiped out a whole generation.

The intervention into contemporary poetry initially did a lot of good in fostering acceptance of Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound (by Leavis himself in New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932) but it was hardly to be expected that critics who had already proved themselves incapable of reading Milton or Hardy would take kindly to what happened in the 1940s. The whole ethos of these critics, acute as much of their actual analysis was, amounted to a narrowing of the parameters of poetry on a purist (and puritanical) basis which would not for a moment tolerate aesthetic extravagance of any kind, with a particular horror of what they called the “prophetic” or “vatic”, the tone of high rhetoric, the loud voice, or any kind of extravagant figuration. What started as a polemical position became a policing, and was so successful that it virtually wiped out a whole generation, whether they in fact wrote in a “vatic” manner or not.

Actually it was not the 1940s at all. It was a period from about 1935 to 1955, thus encompassing the career of Dylan Thomas, who was always the principal target, being, as he was, the originator of most of the moves under attack. This new poetry was well established by 1939 and in most cases was clearly initiated under the influence of Thomas. It was not therefore a reaction to the war. It ended, or was finally annihilated, in the 1950s with the success of Philip Larkin and the “Movement” poets, warmly endorsed by at least some of the Cambridge critics, though the spiritual home of this poetry was not the higher academy but the provincial college and the lower professional classes in general.

dthomasIf the climate of wholesale rejection had a fairly devastating effect on the careers of most poets emerging in the late 1930s, it was singularly unsuccessful on Thomas himself, because of the simple fact that among all the clamour of abhorrence, which began as soon as his first books appeared, he gained and retained an actual popularity which is still with us. Whatever the dons decided, his books continued to sell and at the age of 22 he was with a major publisher for his second book. And there’s not much you can do about that but proclaim everybody to be wrong, which they only did implicitly.

The attack on Thomas was no-holds-barred…People were writing as if Thomas’s poetry was a threat to the homes and families of England.

The attack on Thomas was no-holds-barred. Whatever literary principles underlay the campaign the terms used were frequently personally abusive, with a tendency towards bodily and sexual terms – exhibitionist, self-stimulating, “glandular”, “fleshly”, including such immortal coinages of literary criticism as “A demagogic Welsh masturbator who fails to pay his bills” (Robert Graves). The tone was angry and shrill, and argument was normally lost site of in invective. People were writing as if Thomas’s poetry was a threat to the homes and families of England, a libidinous, disorderly bodily eruption to be countered with reprimand and suppression. This ran through his entire career, continued after his death and is still going on, though more, now, in the form of a determination to deny him any influence or importance.2 One critic, David Holbrook, went to the trouble of publishing two full books aimed at demolishing Thomas (and one to the same purpose on Sylvia Plath). One particular phrase has come to be a banner headline, endlessly repeated as a substitute for understanding, or reading, Thomas’s poetry – “All sound and no sense”. It would be interesting to know where this originated. It does not, of course, itself make sense: if you have words you manifestly have meaning and sense whatever of a jumble they are in – if it is purely sound it is not words. But the phrase probably appeals to “common sense” or “sensible” rather than semantic sense.

This aggression was not the sole domain of academics – indeed perhaps the first salvo came from the poet Geoffrey Grigson in 1936; “classicist” poets such as Robert Graves joined in gleefully and by the mid-1950s all the popular poets of the “Movement” felt free to have a go. But the 1970s-80s were the worst period for Thomas in terms of sheer neglect. It was a particularly staid period for English poetry in which it seemed the attempt to eradicate him and his like had pretty-well succeeded. For the implied future of English poetry it was important that Thomas should be forgotten.

MOST OF THE poets active in the 1940s suffered from these manoeuvres, some directly but most indirectly in the climate of an unevenly divided field in which the dominance of Larkin and company licensed a disregard for even slight divergence from prosaic empiricism. I could be challenged on this, but I feel that as an indirect result of the 1940s-50s poetry wars, principally the attack on Thomas, the 1970s-’80s saw for the first time a particularly narrow concept of the function of poetry assume a very powerful position which obscured not only the contrary concept but the work of many poets who were engaged with poetry in quite different ways, and that it also provoked, eventually, an equally narrow concept of experimental poetry which was just as rationalist and even more unvocal. Passionate utterance of any kind became a rare commodity.

There is no need now to engage with these attempts to demote and ignore one of the most important poets of his generation3 for while they may hold specific challenges which need to be answered, the main critical processes consisted of not paying attention, not analysing, not tackling difficulty, not noticing formal procedures, but dismissing the entire mode en bloc and not really treating it as a literary phenomenon at all.

FRLeavisThomas was the naughty, dirty boy (or girl)4 who broke into the seminar and disrupted the tradition, the unqualified bohemian upstart more interested in booze and sex than anything else (Thomas’s public life-style did nothing to help on this point). Even such a sophisticated critic as Leavis did not distinguish consistently between qualities of the text and qualities of its author. And from the start the usual critical tactic when faced with a text was dismissal as self-evidently invalid. (I must add that most Larkin criticism I’ve seen has been of a similar nature, though more in speechless adoration than speechless detestation). There is now no excuse for not knowing that Thomas’s way of writing was not slapdash, that he built up his poems slowly and painstakingly, weighing each word carefully and sometimes consulting others about their “rightness” and “truth”; that he adopted specific and complex syllabic methods of formal patterning; and that he did not write in a vacuum but was very well read in modern poetry and its past. Perhaps the greatest threat his critics now represent is that they provoke defensiveness, that in the face of such biased and aggressive criticism it becomes necessary to pretend that Thomas was incapable of a perverse and disdainful poetical figure, or of a poem so jammed full of diversions as to be unnavigable.

THIS RATHER EXTENDED preamble brings us to the fact that for that generation the time of the Collected Poems is now upon us, and explains why it has reached some poets so much later than others. In reviewing the new Dylan Thomas collection I am more concerned about the editing than the poetry itself, partly because I have already had my say about Thomas’s poetry elsewhere.5

Thomas’s 1952 Collected Poems was a straight reprint of his previously published books with a few poems added, and no notes; the 1988 edition had the same content plus two more poems, and some 100 pages of notes; the present volume has a lot more poetry and half of its 400 pages bear notes. This is what happens: more and more poems are dredged up from periodicals and archives until a “Collected Poems” becomes a “Complete Poems”, which the new edition is in spite of its title. Larkin’s complete poems appeared in 2014 — running neck and neck (though the comparison is irrelevant, because Larkin is not Thomas’s complementary contrary — that was Auden. Larkin inhabits a different phase, and is in reaction against both of them, if not against poetry itself). And in this development it becomes a different kind of book.

Whereas a ‘Collected Poems’ used to be no more than the poems collected, it now has to be an educational tool explaining the things poets say to the inexperienced…

Whereas a “Collected Poems” used to be no more than the poems collected, it now has to be an educational tool explaining the things poets say to the inexperienced, and the quantity of notes appended grows and grows. It seems to be at this final stage, which represents the firm establishment of the poet, that it becomes most difficult to know how the book should be arranged, how much help with the texts should be offered, and in short, who is it for? Thomas’s 1952 Collected, which he supervised himself, was clearly for people who wanted to read his poems, and he seems not to have expected most of them to be in schools or colleges. He also seems to have expected them to take on the poems just as they were, without guidance or apology. The change here from the way poetry was treated in 1952 to the way it is now, is immense. It virtually exists, now, to be taught, and some of it is clearly written for no other purpose.6 So if I find features of John Goodby’s new edition problematic, he has probably done no more than he had to in a publishing environment which assumes such a book to exist almost exclusively for educational purposes.

WHERE THIS SHOWS itself is, firstly, in strict chronology: all the poems printed in the order in which were written. This is for discussion of “development”. So we get silly songs and limericks written on bits of paper in various pubs pressed close against some of his most serious poems. “Song”, which begins “When Mr Watts-Ewers / (Licensed to sell / Beer wine & spirits / And tobacco as well), Advertised in the papers / He would open that night / His brand new hotel, / The town had a fright…”, comes sandwiched between “Do not go gentle…” and “In the White Giant’s Thigh”. And of course the contents of the original books are no longer intact but scattered all over the place. Some of us are sorry to see these go, having lived with them for many years, but at least there is a listing of their contents as an appendix.

Secondly, explain and explain again. Thomas’s poetical writing is normally so densely metaphorical and full of multiplied figuration that you could have a note on every other word and drawing a line must be very difficult. But if we accept that people do need help, no-one is better qualified than Goodby to give it, and even the quantity he supplies is not necessarily excessive. There are notes on variants and sources as you’d expect, but the bulk of the notes are explanatory, bringing Thomas’s figures down to rational and straightforward forms, revealing the masked allusions, the recognisable things which lie behind the verbal theatre. Each poem also gets a prose synopsis preceding its notes.

All this is fair enough since Thomas evidently did operate to a large extent by deliberately disguising quite ordinary sense, sometimes to the point of obscuring it. He was also happy to explain in this way when asked, and he supplied a synopsis more than once; he could even (as in the unfinished “Elegy” ) begin work on a poem by writing a synopsis. Some of his own explanations, both of particular poems and his general purposes, are included in the notes and more substantial items in appendices. But aside from the dangers of overloading with explanation,7 even notes from such an authority as Goodby (or from Thomas himself), can be contestable, and can be bent towards the editor’s particular interpretations. And anyone who looks hard enough will always be able to find reasons for further interventions. Here is the first, comparatively easy, stanza of an early untitled poem, with a summary of Goodby’s notes—

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Notes—
Caught has a photographic sense, as in ‘caught the likeness of’
crabbing = miserly + creating the poet’s crab-like shadow
on fire = the sun’s glare on sea and wet sand
raven: a bird of ill omen
sticks: of the nest (also a topographical reference)
syllabic: blood is syllabic because the poem is, +a play on ‘sibylline’, referring to the
prophetic action of the heart in pumping blood out.

Notes on notes:

All Goodby’s notes are perfectly feasible, but I find his interpretations of “caught”, “crabbed” and “syllabic” rather far-fetched. He neglects the possibility of a general metaphor of emotional condition in “caught” and “on fire”, and the clash of sensation between “frosty” and “on fire”. “Raven” — by all means, but for all Thomas’s obsession with allusion I think we should still be able to walk by the sea with him sometimes and hear a raven as a raven. “Syllabic” — this could be put as that the blood passing through the heart is the source of (strong or emotional) linguistic expression, or simply a declaration of a sanguine disposition. Why is “heart” female? Is it because she is a mother continually giving birth to continued life and thus of poetry, as a form of talking? And how does that process become a draining, unless to suggest the creative process as a kind of illness or self-sacrifice, but then how are the words drained rather than the agent? This seems to be one of those figurations which in the excitement Thomas pushes to an extreme without integrating it.

After all the notes and the study and all the understanding, the text needs to be returned to the obscurity to which Thomas took such pains to bring it.

IT IS EASY to take exception to the notes like this, but one particular image in this text has a personal reverberation for me which suggests limits on the objectivity of the explanatory process. To return to “caught” and “crabbing”, Goodby’s glosses work well enough, but one way of catching crabs, which I’ve seen in north Wales, is to thrust your arm into the crab’s hole, which you must do at exactly the upper turn of the tide when the male crab, normally guarding the entrance with his fearsome pincers, always turns round to mate with the female behind him. You then grab the male and pull him out backwards. Crabs are creatures of very regular habit. Did Thomas know of this method? We shall never know, but it fits well with his lines and gets rid of the dubious ‘miserly’, and I cannot stop it from always informing my reading of the line. This perhaps brings out the way Thomas’s poetical processes in becoming so intensified and contorted finally detach the poetry from its origins, which can still serve to explain the course of events but can no longer be taken as a definitive key to what is happening at any point. This means that after all the notes and the study and all the understanding, the text needs to be returned to the obscurity to which Thomas took such pains to bring it. We do need to understand the poems and we do need help such as we get in this book, but we cannot allow the poem to remain as an explained thing. It must stay open not only to responses deriving from individual experience, but to enigmas which may be explained but not explained away.

I’m not at all sure how this would operate, or how much time and trouble Thomas is entitled to demand of us. The final situation is contradictory. The notes are necessary, may be taken with a pinch of salt, may be disagreed with, are ignored at peril, but also need to be transcended in some way or other. I don’t know whether this “final” reading of a poem by a poet such as Thomas will be a relaxed enjoyment subsequent to understanding or a fascinated non-understanding prior to it, but somehow it will be a reading of the poem entirely and only as it is. The basic and unfailing attraction of his poetry has always been an ecstatic perception of earthly space held in deeply somatic language, insistently lyrical, so that large-scale terms of human existence are necessarily realised as a function of the imagination.

Here are the beginnings of four poems from various stages of his career:

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house…
The bows glided down, and the coast
Blackened with birds took a last look
At his thrashing hair, his whale-blue eye…

Never and never, my girl riding far and near
In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep…

Through throats where many rivers meet, the curlews cry…

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age…

and they all go on like that. What, then, is the problem?

NMoore_jacketCONCERNING NICHOLAS MOORE (1918-1986) I am not an impartial observer. I knew him in his last years, worked on his archive and edited two books, one of them a selected poems, Longings of the Acrobats, published by Carcanet in 1988. He was one of the first modern poets I ever read, attracted by what seemed to be an enticing fusion of playful and serious, embracing the domestic the public and the imaginary, separately or together, all within a concept of the poem which rested its claim on poise, balance, clarity (i.e., classical virtues), rhythmical alertness and the sensuousness of sound structures. Modernism clung to the edges of his poems to give a frisson of uncertainty or a sudden twist of sense. Later, from a post-1960s historical perspective, he seemed basically unmodern at the same time as new — in the sense, especially, of “fresh”. One important aspect of this which drew the attention of New York poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery in the 1950s was the direct admission to the poetical texture of the immediacies of urbane day-to-day living, actual or theatrical (or filmic). It became possible to have poems containing words like “refrigerator”, “nylons”, “detective” and to address in poetry jazz musicians, cricketers and film stars, all encompassed by symbolical entities and a free range of literary and historical reference.

What hit Moore was ‘the aftermath of the attack, the firm establishment of a poetical power structure opposed to any kind of unorthodox manifestation.’

Moore actually did well in the 1940s without gaining notoriety, of which there was very little available at the time, publishing nine books from small-to-middling presses and busy with periodical publication, editing, and paid work for one of his publishers. Then around 1950 a combination of personal and impersonal circumstances silenced him and he was hardly heard from again. He resumed writing poetry in the 1960s and was prolific from then on but met with no success whatsoever in getting anything published beyond occasional items due to the efforts of individual poet enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s, all distinctly small-scale.

I always assumed this failure to be due to the attack on 1940s poetry spearheaded by Cambridge academics, but I don’t think it was. The one big career error he made was to subscribe to a grouping of poets who named themselves “New Apocalypse” in 1939, who immediately became (and still are) a collective target for scorn and dismissal, being mostly heavily influenced by Dylan Thomas and thrusting his manner into an even greater density, intellectualised via Nietzsche, Freud et al., and, under the shadow of the war, cast into a pessimistic gloom far from Thomas’s resilience.8 Moore evidently supported the programme but did not write in the Apocalyptic manner except in isolated moments, and increasingly drew away from it. His position was quite anomalous: officially part of the reaction against Auden and the trimmed and measured consistency of the poet-self which dominated much of Auden’s poetry, but in practice sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t; he respected Auden and could be close to him in some of his more expansive poems, but against Auden’s monolithic presiding self he developed a collection of poetical selves which was Protean and highly flexible. His poetry was both more private (“A Lake for Tantalus”) and more public (“Thirty-five Anonymous Odes”) than the ’30s norm, in both cases because it was less mediated. He did not deal in figures such as “the lover” and his public manner lay in the language itself, his daring to adapt a quasi-Miltonic tone which was never entirely serious.

NMooreHE SEEMS, ANYWAY, to have weathered the 1940s to the mid-’50s, as several of them did, and what hit him was the aftermath of the attack, the firm establishment of a poetical power structure opposed to any kind of unorthodox manifestation. Moore was left producing almost a poem a day for thirty years which nobody would look at twice. He was strictly waste-paper-basket material, and was told so. This held in spite of the varieties which were increasingly introduced into the world of “successful” poetry from the late 1950s onwards, with poets born around 1930 such as Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, Peter Levi, Charles Tomlinson and others producing a poetry of ever wider range and expression, ecstatic and animistic, later opening out to the work of Roy Fisher and Christopher Middleton, all seemingly opposed to the insularity of the “Movement” though usually (the older ones) paying homage to Larkin and affected by his manner, and largely accepted by the ever swelling “establishment”. None of this helped Moore at all.

In fact by the 1970s Moore must have known his case was hopeless, but never stopped trying, ever seeking a mode which should fetch an echo of recognition from somewhere, and indulging a great deal of mockery of prevailing trends and institutions in virtuosic satirical displays of word-play and heteronymous disguises. The general tone was of facing hopeless decline and usurpation on all sides, but remaining determined to uphold the true poetical faith. This produced a great variety of different kinds of writing, from poems he could have written in the 1940s, as serious as anything of his ever was, to parodies of Ginsberg.

The new selection…has coped remarkably well with the variety and abundance of Moore’s poetry, and gives the impression of a poet in complete charge of his own skills…

The new selection, which is over twice the size of the 1988 one, has coped remarkably well with the variety and abundance of Moore’s poetry, and gives the impression of a poet in complete charge of his own skills, who can reliably wade through many different conditions of the poem held steady by his gyroscopic faith in the classical imperative. There are even two of his poems in a rather Teutonic version of Finneganese which he invented, and there is the whole of Spleen from 1968, which is a tour de force of poetical integration, 32 versions of the same Baudelaire sonnet done in mockery of a Sunday Times translation competition, which inextricably unites the extremes of his vision: the lament of his own fall from success and health, and wicked verbal mockery (mostly in parodic marginalia) of the context into which his dignified lines are sent— “classical” and “innovative” in the same breath. But it was not just a running duality, for a powerful recreation of Baudelaire’s ennui emanates from most of the sequence as its central purpose, masked or not.

Since Selected Poems is not conceived as an educational publication the notes are minimal and not explanatory (that would hardy be necessary), though they do noticeably expand as soon as the topics of jazz and cricket are touched on. Both the quantity of Moore’s output and the poetry’s openness to urbane variety encourage editors to follow their own inclinations, which explains the fulsomeness of editor John Lucas’s divagations on these subjects, sometimes trespassing beyond the confines of the poem being noted. This stress has brought out for me Moore’s insistent return throughout his career, which I hadn’t noticed, to the scene of a night club or dance venue for lightly yearning poems, perhaps initially representing the distance a devotee of recorded jazz feels from where it really happened, but reaching in one of his last poems, “Tea Dance at the Black Star” and its two sequels, an extraordinary summation of (again) frivolity and earnestness in which the “bleak ‘otel”, the Black Star, “That curious hole that tells us what we are”, that “black sterryotype”, is the scene of lost souls in pairs enacting their forlorn fancies, made all the more poignant by all the verbal quirks, song-rhymes and puns which bring the actuality and the artifice into mutual play—

The Youman proportion will be found in the ‘otel
– Lo! – there across the way where you may have tea for two, men
Or women, together or separately, one of each
Or two of each, each desperately

Trying to smile a while over the peach
Sandwiches or salmon glacé…

Moore_penvyl10“Half serious” is wrong for this; it is wholly serious and entirely flippant. It is where the two contrary forces of Moore’s poetry , classical and modern, confront each other and dance together to the tunes of absurdity and incongruity (peach sandwiches!!??). It is from among the poems of Moore’s last year which I assembled and edited in 1988 under the title Lacrimae Rerum, and I was particularly glad to see a generous selection from this remarkable last-minute flowering. But there are encounters like this to be witnessed through the whole book, if rarely as stark as in these last poems.9

MCraig_jacketWHEN YOU GET talking to poets active in the early 1940s you inevitably get told about a lot of “young poets” of that time who were thought of as at least promising, and have vanished without trace. Nicholas Moore did quite a lot of editing in the 1940s — a periodical called Seven and several anthologies. (He was the first to publish Wallace Stevens in Britain, and W.S. Graham anywhere). Here and in working editorially for Poetry London he saw the work of many of his contemporaries and he was always unhesitant in his endorsements. I’m sure I could list a good dozen recommended names now unknown. Most of them had a few books published later, though some vanished more or less immediately. The ones which most interested me were Wrey Gardiner, W.G. Archer, Thomas Good, Dorian Cooke, Alfred Marnau and perhaps Stephen Coates (whose books I seem to have lost). It is somewhat saddening looking through the contents of Seven and recognising a poetry “scene”, and a particularly strong one, in which names such as these constantly recur alongside others which have survived (Thomas, Barker Gascoyne…), a scene such as I and most poets have been involved in at one time or another, always with the faith and expectation that this constellation will prove to be the future, which may be justified in principle but subject to external interference.

One of the names pressed on me by Moore was Dorian Cooke, an out-and-out New Apocalyptic whose Collected Poems is currently being edited by Peter Manson for Shearsman Books. Another was Maurice Craig, a student friend of Moore’s at Cambridge around 1940, originally from Belfast, who after returning to Ireland became a respected authority on Irish domestic architecture, author of several books on this and other subjects. He had one book of poems published in England in 1948, and all the poems in Poems date from 1939 to 1947, after which the impetus seems to have expired.

The impression on first opening the book is of “ordinary rhymed poems” which is not surprising, for Moore had a belief in poetical craft which over-rode optional specialisations, and for instance, always supported the “conventional” poetry of the Scottish vicar Andrew Young. But Craig’s poems repay closer attention. And if the poems are arranged chronologically (I think they are) the earlier ones, especially those written in 1941-3 when he was in Dublin writing a thesis on Walter Savage Landor 10, are freer in several ways, and the formality becomes more insistent into the mid-40s, possibly due to the influence of Landor.

The more ambitious poems have a density and a symbolic vocabulary which is more rhetorical than visual…

SOME OF THE more ambitious poems have a density and a symbolic vocabulary which is more rhetorical than visual — and can be quite disorienting as it rushes from one figure to the next, in a way reminiscent of the English 1940s. One such is an address to Ireland called “Easter Tuesday 1941” (the date of the annual celebration of Easter 1916 which in 1941 was a massive display of Ireland’s military power)–

Now that death is dropping
On the quivering mud
And on the just and unjust
Falls the rain of blood
God send the flares may light you
The way out of the wood.

You never took kindly
To parliaments or votes,
But rifles on the barricades –
More like starving stoats
Trapped in a hole, and digging
Teeth in each other’s throats. …

MCraigIt is interesting that, although detached and protected from the struggles undergone by poets in London, which include the temptation to sink into bohemianism as well as being constantly under fire, there is a sense as the book progresses of an increasing difficulty in continuing, as the poems get lighter and less ambitious, settling for the ironies of anecdotal paradox and endorsed scenarios of affection; it is as if the entire venture is undergoing a failure of context, for although Craig was linked to the “renaissance” of poetry in Belfast, his poems inhabit a whole-Ireland stage. He kept in touch with Nicholas Moore through his career and may well have thought of himself, as a poet, still not entirely disconnected from the situation in England.

Meanwhile there are in what I take to be the mid-’40s poems such as the following to show what a poet such as Craig (a “minor poet” if you like) was capable of –

These grassy walks are cool and light
And as I walk them now I light
A quiet Sunday-morning pipe
To fill the emptiness of sleep.

Tonight she will be sailing west
To the grey city, and farther west
The farmers and the island men
Smoke in the Sunday-morning sun.

The skill here is more than reticence, in knowing when to stop and knowing not to go for the big conclusion, and not to push the presence of the self but to allow the train of thought to divert away from the felt impulsion; it is also in the unusual end-rhyme scheme of two identical rhymes followed by two half-rhymes in each verse, as if avoiding the normality of true rhyme, and how this feels integral to the poem’s account. There is a quiet break and replacement in the poem’s linearity which might mark an entire cultural position.


duenorth_cov(Part one of two. Part two will examine retrospective collections by David Gascoyne, Dorian Cooke, and Matthew Mead.)

Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015).

NOTES:

  1.  I use the word “English” rather than “British” because in the period I’m concerned with the situation in Scotland, and to a lesser extent Ireland, was distinct, especially in a continuity which was severely disrupted in England.
  2.  See for instance the collection of academic commentaries W.S.Graham, Speaking Towards You, Liverpool University Press 2004, in which it is repeatedly denied in the face of all the evidence that Thomas was an important influence on Graham. Reviewed by me in PN Review No.159, 2004.
  3.  For a thorough account of the quantity and terms of the attack see the Introduction to John Goodby’s The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall, Liverpool University Press 2013.
  4.  See Chapter 3 of Professor Goodby’s book on forms of attack which cast Thomas into a “feminine”, emotional, role as against “masculine” uprightness and intellect. These mostly came from the psychologising ex-Communist David Holbrook in the 1960s.
  5. This is in two articles in Poetry Wales: “Thomas and Apocalypse”, XLIV/3 winter 2008-9, and a review of John Goodby’s “Under the Spelling Wall”, XLIX/4, 2014. The former speaks of Thomas’s techniques and his relationship with his successors, the latter of Thomas as a Modernist.
  6.  I don’t mean here the most difficult or complicated Modernist writing, though a lot of that is conceived as matter for college teaching. See my review of Simon Armitage.
  7.  In the hardback edition supplied for review the abundance of notes is counter-balanced by the near impossibility of finding them, as no pagination references are supplied to connect the notes to the poems, and if you need one you just have to grope for it. I believe that this situation will be remedied in the forthcoming paperback edition.
  8.  See my “Thomas and Apocalypse”, cited above.
  9. The Fortnightly Review has published a “pomenvylope” by Moore (addressed to Anthony Rudof), along with a commentary by Martin Sorrell . The “pomenvylope” appears here.
  10. Published as One Hundred Poems. (Lilliput, 1999).

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.