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What Is Poetry?

Death keeps — an indifferent host —
this house of call,
whose sign-board wears no boast
save Beds for All.
—Sylvia Townsend Warren, ‘East London Cemetery’

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
 “He hears it not now, but used to notice such things?”
—Thomas Hardy, ‘Afterwards’

By Peter Robinson.

Our theme was to explore relations between two writers who had lived large parts of their lives in Dorset.

It had been a long day. Starting before dawn, my wife, Ornella Trevisan, and I had driven down from Reading to be in Dorchester in good time for the beginning of a symposium organised by the Thomas Hardy Society and the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. Our theme was to explore relations between two writers who had lived large parts of their lives in Dorset. I had written and would present a paper on ‘Hardy and Warner Haunting Graveyards’ which explores similarities and differences in their poetry regarding whether not we are equal in death. The presentation before mine, which implied we aren’t, was by Mark Ford, based on his recent book Woman Much Missed (2023), about the inspirational force, especially after her decease, of Hardy’s first wife Emma. There were other talks on similarities and differences between Hardy and Warner by Janet Montefiore, chair of the Warner Society, who opened proceedings by setting the scene for our comparisons, by Mark Chutter, president and academic director of the Hardy Society, on the great novelist and poet in Warner’s Diaries, and by Peter Swaab, who edits the journal of the Warner Society, on their various uses of life’s little ironies and circumstantial satires.

The smallish upper room at the Dorchester Library where the event took place was respectably filled with audience, members of both societies, graduate students from UCL (where Mark and Peter hold chairs), and to my pleasant surprise, arriving just as proceedings got under way, in came Maud Ellmann, currently writing a book on Warner, and her partner the poet John Wilkinson. If we add to them James Harpur, usually based in the West of Ireland, who happened to be visiting family nearby, and Janet, whose poems are published by John Lucas’s Shoestring Press, that made five poets in the one room. John and I are contemporaries who coincided at Cambridge in the heady days of the 1970s poetry revival. I published some of his earlier work in Perfect Bound and typeset a pamphlet of his at the time of the 1977 International Poetry Festival in the town. James is three years younger and happens also to have been attached to Trinity College, though as an undergraduate, while I was working for a doctorate there. We did not meet then, but struck up an acquaintance at the launch of Trinity Poets, issued by Carcanet in 2017, an anthology of writers from the college down the centuries. Then Two Rivers Press, whose poetry list I currently edit, published a book of his called The Examined Life in 2021. Mark is Oxford educated, a decade younger, and we spent time together while working in Japan during the early 1990s when his first collection, Landlocked, appeared from Chatto & Windus.


In the steamy microclimate of contemporary poetry where, as Roy Fisher put it in ‘The Making of the Book’, faction ‘makes a reciprocal to-and-fro of the simplest sort — and characterless / but for an “aesthetic” variable, / inaudible to all but the players’, what we publish would likely be counted very different. Janet’s poems are occasional in the best — Goethe’s — sense. John, associated with the so-called Cambridge School, writes linguistically innovative poetry whose first bearings were taken from J. H. Prynne’s writing. Of James’s work, Michael O’Neill wrote that his 2019 Carcanet collection, The White Silhouette, shows how ‘spiritual wrestlings and traditions can live again in poetry.’

Mark and I have both published critical admiration for the work of John Ashbery and Thomas Hardy, yet if you imagine a bizarre spectrum of possibilities connecting those two oeuvres, Mark’s poetry would doubtless find its place more towards the Ashbery end than would mine — as illustrated by comparing the three regular-ish quatrains of ‘Since you Asked’ in About Time Too (2001), which inquires ‘What would Hardy have made of today’ with Mark’s ‘A Broken Appointment’ in Enter, Fleeing (2018) that concludes:

what a poem — what a poem Thomas Hardy
might have written
about this!’

After the talks and discussion, Mark Chutter led a tour of Dorchester including a visit to the County Museum, where Hardy’s study is reconstructed, and which has smaller exhibits devoted to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, and the Powys Brothers. The day would end with a poetry reading and a dinner in another upper room, this time at the Kings Arms. The programme included poems by, about, or related to Hardy recited by members of the assembled company, each reading one or two, and the effect was of a genial, old-fashioned entertainment in which those gathered amused and distracted each other before we celebrated having got to the end of the day. The three poets who gave papers also read — James having not been able to stay beyond the presentations, and John appearing there strictly as audience. Mark recited his ‘A Broken Appointment’ with Hardy’s original, and I read the following as yet uncollected poem, or almost, because it received a light revision after what was its first public airing, though prompted some eight years ago by hearing who had won the US Presidential election in 2016:

Weymouth Sands

I shrink to seek a modern coast
Whose riper times have yet to be …
—Thomas Hardy

There’s a great white apparition up ahead
with art-deco wings and central tower.
You wonder what it might have been,
ask passers-by, who’ve no idea.
Yet how its intrigue draws us on
till, aquamarine, the trim’s grown clear
and a name: RIVIERA HOTEL
in the glass of that central tower —
the scene or setting for a noir whodunit,
a crime passionnel overlooking Weymouth Bay.

Returning, now, towards its town
(the clocks gone back today)
sunburst spokes of rays, you see,
are flecked about with wisps of cloud,
the turquoise, pink and purple
patches in a vast display —
as if the sunset’s scene or setting
were practised, too, in the art of deception
and it could take that need of his
for a way back to their want as well …

With lights come on across the town
so much is coming to an end
(though we’re not yet aware of it) —
as if Thomas Hardy in his ‘Invitation’ poem
had really recommended them
to take on some antiquity,
when in that land of theirs
(as he could well have known),
oh no, they’ll not get free
from the patriotic gore, dripping tears of its own.

But now wave-facets in a dusk-lit swell
slope and slop around this shore.
Silhouetted, apparitions turn
homeward in the crepuscule.
Under lamps’ intervals, along its promenade,
who’ll recall memorials
for the dead GIs of Slapton Sands
in Hardy Country, more than sixty-years before?
And though, we too, the sun gone down,
retrace steps, traipsing on,
shrinking to seek a modern coastline,
their story, can’t I count it part of mine?

Being stone deaf in my right ear, from collateral damage caused by the removal of a brain tumour in 1993, I find the table seating at large events in cavernous rooms with booming acoustics a challenge. The people to my right, none of whom I knew, were inaudible in the noise of conversation. Fortunately, to my left, was my wife, and nearby, though too far to hear if I wasn’t directly addressed, were Maud, John and Mark. Opposite was a woman who, it turned out, was in the Thomas Hardy Society, though no specialist, she said, rather and happily, a reader, an enthusiast of his fiction. She had met her husband at the University of Exeter in the early 1990s, while studying literature and he, philosophy. There was an empty seat next to her which, she explained, was for him. He had been watching one of the Six Nations rugby matches and would join her as soon as he could manage.

We might have exchanged views, for instance, on the Italian rugby team’s surprisingly good performance in this year’s tournament.

Which he proceeded to do, and the four of us then did our best to hold a conversation, the kind which takes place between people who have never met and are not likely to meet again but take a respectful interest in each other. We might have exchanged views, for instance, on the Italian rugby team’s surprisingly good performance in this year’s tournament. Some managed snippets of life story emerged. Neither worked in professions connected to their university degrees. I was quizzed about what I did and why I was there, and as if to indulge me when our conversation faltered (the delivery of the various courses being separated by long waits), the one-time philosophy student and rugby enthusiast asked me this very question:

‘What is poetry?’

A day or so later we would visit the Etches Fossil Museum at Kimmeridge, and at that moment it did feel as if a small dinosaur had been asked to explain its way of life to a mammal. Naturally, the appropriate answer to any question will depend on who’s asking and who’s being asked, on the context and degree of detail expected. What, then, could I have replied? That very morning I had been praising a 1927 poem of Warner’s included in Mark’s anthology London: A History in Verse (2012):

East London Cemetery

Death keeps — an indifferent host —
this house of call,
whose sign-board wears no boast
save Beds for All.

Narrow the bed, and bare,
and none too sweet.
No need, says Death, to air
the single sheet.

Comfort, says he, with shrug,
is but degree,
and London clay a rug
like luxury,

to him who wrapped his bones
in the threadbare hood
blood wove from weft of stones
under warp of foot.

During questions, Janet helpfully reminded us that it responds — in a bitterly secular criticism of policy towards homelessness among the living — to Christina Rossetti’s religious hope in ‘Up-Hill’:

Shall I find comfort, travel sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum. 
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Before dinner we had listened to ‘Neutral Tones’ by Hardy and ‘The Riddle’ by John Cowper Powys, to ‘Nellie Trim’ by Warner, to ‘The Unborn’ by Hardy and ‘The Tollund Man’ by Seamus Heaney. Peter Swaab had read a recent poem of Bill Manhire’s called ‘Hardyesque’, then came Hardy’s and Mark’s ‘A Broken Appointment’. I had even heard ‘Weymouth Sands’ sufficiently to decide it deserved a few further tweaks (and I quote it above because it’s the only answer I can really give for myself). John and Mark were almost in earshot. Perhaps they had heard the question. This couple were evidently not ‘players’, as Fisher’s poem has it, and many of those ‘aesthetic’ variables would likely be inaudible to them. But what came out of my mouth was this:

‘Poetry? It’s anything you can get away with!’

But if my reply was meant to overcome this embarrassing, this challenging moment, to let us move on to something less fraught, at least to me, whether it satisfied the couple across the table or not I don’t know. It certainly didn’t satisfy my wife.

               ‘That’s not what I thought you’d have said,’ she murmured, close to my good ear.

‘What would I have said?’ I asked.

But no, this wasn’t the time or place to take his question seriously. Glancing around, I saw that, thankfully, Maud, John and Mark hadn’t appeared to hear and, whether satisfied or not, the couple to whom we were talking had accepted my reply for what it was. We were already on to something else. But remembering the question before going down to breakfast the next morning, I asked Ornella what my answer should have been.

               ‘Well,’ she said, though unfamiliar with Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, ‘if I’d been asked — and I’ve spent the last thirty years with someone trying to write it — I’d say it’s a way of paying a particular attention to life and of finding unnoticed connections there.’

PETER ROBINSON helps edit poetry for The Fortnightly Review. Alongside Retrieved Attachments, recent publications include English Nettles and Other Poems; his translations from Pietro De Marchi, Reports after the Fire: Selected Poems; and The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & MemoirsPeter Robinson: A Portrait of His Work, a collection of essays and a bibliography edited by Tom Phillips, has also recently appeared. A collection of his stories, Foreigners, Drunks and Babies, was published in 2013. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is indexed here and an audio track of ‘Dreamt Affections’ is here.






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