Stride Magazine -



LONG SHADOWS: POEMS 1938-2002 by J.C. Hall, 130pp, £8.95
TARO FAIR by Ian Caws, 42pp, £7.50
THE ISLANDERS by Andrew Sant, 64pp, £7.95
Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham, NG9 1BS.

John Lucas’s Shoestring Press, which he started in 1994, has come a long way in a short time. It is now one of the foremost publishers of contemporary poetry in this country. And not just poetry, Shoestring publishes novels and collections of essays. And not just British poetry, Shoestring’s list can boast the names of distinguished Australian poets; it is particularly hot on translations of eminent Greek poets. And not just the young and promising, but also older-generation poets who have for one reason or another fallen from sight, like Philip Callow, Barry Cole, Ian Fletcher, Arnold Rattenbury, and ­ one of the subjects of the present review ­ J.C. Hall. There are few people who can match the breadth of taste and the passionate advocacy of poetry as John Lucas. Himself a fine poet (see his ‘A World Perhaps ­ New & Selected Poems’ from Sow’s Ear Press), he is also an important and highly-respected critic in lectures, essays (see for example his recently published ‘Starting to Explain ­ Essays on Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry’ from Trent Books) and in penetrating reviews.

Published in his eighty-third year, J.C Hall’s Long Shadows contains poems from a writing span of sixty-four years and comes as a timely reminder of what a good poet Hall is. It shows him to be a traditionalist but one with a romantic temperament closely reined in by intense respect for form. He is a superb technician: he knows how to make a poem. This does not mean he sacrifices imaginative impetus to elegance. His poems always follow a clear and readable trajectory to a satisfying conclusion.

I encountered the name J.C. Hall through my interest in Norman Nicholson. He shared in a threesome Selected Poems published by John Bale and Staples in 1943 which included Nicholson (one of my boyhood heroes and later a friend) and K.C. Douglas (Keith Douglas who was killed in the Second World War in 1944 at the age of 24). Hall is Douglas’s literary executor and editor of his poems as well as those of Edwin Muir (whose influence can be felt in the poems he started writing in the sixties). It is a real pleasure to have this book, which acknowledges, preserves and provides readers with the opportunity to encounter a lifetime’s commitment to the art.

For the first fifty-odd pages of Long Shadows we are aware of being in the presence of a poet not shy of ‘poetic diction’, nor of universalising with the use of the pronoun ‘we’ nor of generalising. Clearly the ways of the Modernists have not been for him. A TLS review quoted in the book rightly says ‘Mr Hall has chosen to ignore Pound’s injunction to make it new, preferring to make it real, human and of some account.’ He has also ignored Pound’s advice to go in fear of abstractions and to be sparing of ‘ornament’. On a first reading of the book I scribbled a note on the inside cover (on which I’d been trying pencil in notes towards a description of what I thought the poetry’s ‘old-fashioned flavour’ in its first 50 pages consisted in) saying ‘but so what when it is done so well?’

This is not to say that on occasion within these early pages some rhymes aren’t a little obvious or that some haven’t been predetermined by the need to rhyme or that sometimes they don’t run over into what feels an unnecessary gloss. For example in ‘The Playground by the Church’ we have

                                                                     The children play
                                On swing and seesaw, content simply to be,
                                 In fact or fancy freely wandering.

It would surely have been more effective to have put a full stop after ‘simply to be’. The same might be said of these lines from ‘Hampstead Heath’:

                                   We can never pretend this place
                                    Is other than it is ­
                                    An oasis in a desert.

This last line, again, feels superfluous.

But these are quibbles and, I think, something Hall understands. We may infer this from a later poem entitled ‘Opus 1’ where he takes a humorous view of his earlier practice:

                  ‘Oh, go on, let, me see it.’ I surrender
                  A dark blue exercise book, ruled feint,
                  A little cracked down the spine. Half tender

                  Half teasing, you enunciate my quaint
                  Once so serious phrases. Not what you’d choose!
                  Can it be, then, my generation went

                  A last ramble through Palgrave? All those O’s
                  Apostrophising buds and birds and streams,
                  How they litter the pages ­ now, I suppose,

                  Impossibly archaic. Your voice seems
                  faintly astonished that this style was me.
                  The room grows dark. An early headlamp gleams.

                  On metal fittings, knobs, the still-blank eye
                  That entertains our evenings. Soon
                  Switches will swamp us. Child, how can you see?

                  ‘What’s this?’ Gently you laugh. You read: O Moon.

What a beautiful example of terza rima this is! Such a relaxed colloquial style and yet so technically controlled. Who noticed the clever rhyming first time round? This is the art that conceal art.

From page 58 onwards there is a more relaxed and more colloquial temper to the poems. They lose none of their formal control. One wonders whether they are the consequence of reaching fifty, an age in which a consciousness of loss and memories of family and childhood may move in. Perhaps we can sense the influence of the Movement poets, particularly Larkin at work or, then again, it could be, as Norman Nicholson was to say of a similar change in his work, the influence of Robert Lowell’s landmark collection, Life Studies. Whatever the case, the result is real poems ­ moving elegies, spirited epiphanies, wryly humorous observations. I read this book with growing admiration and then ­ with enormous pleasure ­ I immediately read it again.

Though Taro Fair lists nine other collections, Ian Caws’ work is new to me. He, like Hall, has an obvious respect for formal matters in poetry. He is a meditative poet, not one re-creating experiences but brooding on them. I must admit that I am of the camp who believe with Lowell that a poem ‘is an event and not the record of an event’ and in Anthony Burgess’s declaration that a poet ‘has to rejoice in particularities.’ From this perspective then, I found Caws’ poems lacked an essential immediacy. I have often said in workshops that anything in a poem that holds an experienced reader up with questions (who is the ‘you’ referred to? who is this someone called a ‘bee man’? why are we being asked to remember ‘this’ ­what ‘this’? ­ ‘as a time of singing’?...and so on) cannot be good. With many of these poems I feel on the outside straining to look in. And sometimes it has seemed like trying to look through frosted glass. The poems do not quite achieve what I admire so much in Hall (that ‘clear and readable trajectory to a satisfying conclusion’) or, in the words of George Eliot, how the poet’s ‘knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.’

For me there is something neutral about Caws’ language. For example: ‘What music there is defines the borders, / The obliviousness of words’ is opaque to me.


                  I had not thought of the music,
                  Not in all that time. Coming, it
                  Was like living in a high place.
                       So to return to it now
                  Is to name the season and take
                  The sun’s confidence…
                               [from ‘The Herrick Seat’]

Questions again: what ‘music’? why hadn’t it been thought of before? what does ‘coming’ refer to? what ‘high place’? why does this coming enable one to name a season? which season? what is the sun’s ‘confidence’? and how does one ‘take ‘ it? This is the problem I have with these poems: they resist me. I can admire the workmanship but feel that the subject matter remains somewhat private, somehow unshared.

No doubt Ian Caws will think I’m being obtuse: but the words poets use invariably trigger off associations for them that may not be working for readers, especially when the words tend to the general rather than the particular. (Milton would have not been as interesting if he had written ‘flowers’ instead of ‘pansies freaked with jet’). It is my experience (from casting a beady eye over other people’s poems-in-progress) that poets’ self-justifying commentaries are, more often than not, more interesting than the poem they claim to have written. I suspect this may be the case here.

This is not to say that I do not like contemplative poetry. But with it I expect to become the contemplator whilst reading or to recognise a voice asking me to share. In ‘Taro Fair’ I often feel as though I’ve been nudged aside or that something is being kept from me. Which is a pity because it is clear that a lot of good workmanship is on display here and, despite my caveats, there are things to admire.

Andrew Sant, though born in England, is one of Shoestring’s Australians. My first read-through of The Islanders ­ especially after the two previous very English collections ­ threw me. We don’t find elegance, reticence or formal restraint here. This is gritty ‘modern’ stuff. I also initially had a problem in that I once met Sant in Tasmania (I doubt he’ll remember the occasion) and, with the knowledge that he once edited the literary magazine called The Island in mind, I read this book looking too hard and too simplistically for the Tasmania I had visited in 1995. I should have heeded the word ‘fictional’ in the back-page blurb. My fault.

The word ‘fictional’ allows the imagination to be released and for anything to happen. As in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver locations. And ‘locations’ is not a bad word: there is something cinematic about this sequence ­ camera-angles, close-ups, long-shots, voice-overs.

                  Let’s say in the shadow
                  of a sea-eagle
                  a sailing ship dropped anchor.
                                           [from ‘Lineage’]


                  Islands: the actively volcanic,
                  smoke signals centring sky and ocean.
                  Know them by their tongues of magma.

                  Cut to this island, cooled, its people…
                                               [from ‘Volcanic’]

The poems read like fast-moving scenes from a spoof documentary. ‘Spoof’ does not  here imply that there is anything at the reader’s expense. As with film, the narrative connections are not always there or necessarily obvious. The reader has to use Eliot’s logic of the imagination to make connections between one scene and another. And this of course means that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The poems on the page are invitations to an imaginative encounter with a variety of truths.

Now of course in some ways it is a satirical view of Tasmania: its problematic history; its attempt to forge, out of confusions, an identity for itself; wondering about the criteria for establishing a bureaucracy; the character of a people ambivalent about deference (‘now my new/respect for the crew/washed up here co-exists/with taking the piss’); its physical and spiritual dependence on imported things; its celebratory moments and the hidden cost of these. But to tie these considerations too closely to actual historical circumstances is to severely limit the imaginative scope of the book which sometimes moves into the surreal to create what the back-page blurb calls ‘a complete world, driven by vulnerability, bravado and the bizarre.’ Sant’s words are chosen with proper care, he has an eye for the telling metaphor, a just sense of rhythm, and writes a lively, gritty free-verse that is serious without being po-faced and not without real humour: take this poem called ‘Conjecture’ which may or may not be about the Tasmanian thylacine:

                  In the forest
                  when the thought-to-be-extinct
                  creature is sighted
                  at the fuzzy edge
                  of spotlight

                  it’s the umpteenth time
                  on the umpteenth night, beneath
                  a thousand phases of moonlight

                  and not a verifiable
                  footprint to rely on.

                  The broadsheet’s pages
                  are wings over all
                  that let the beast’s
                  story continue

                  unimpeded by any
                  spotter’s obituary.

                  Then one clown reckons that animal
                  will be easier to trap
                  now it’s adapted
                  to the news.

© Matt Simpson 2003