Nothing in Common
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas. Edited by R. S. Thomas. (Faber, 6s.)
Old Savage/Young City. By Nathaniel Tarn. (Cape, 15s.) This Cold Universe. By Patric Dickinson. (Chatto mann, 15s.) Of Poetry and Power. Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and by the Death of John F. Kennedy. Edited and with introduction by Erwin A. Glikes and Paul Schwaber. With a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Basic Books, 40s.) REVIEWiNG new volumes of poetry is always a rather arbitrary occupation; for however much it may seem so, few poets, even of the same age and nationality, have very much in common. Yet --as with new fiction—one is always tempted either to see likenesses where none really exists, or to see movements, methods, developments and schools where, in five or ten years, the books in question will either have been forgotten or else appear to be entirely original and indi- vidualistic. This last will only, of course, apply to the best of the books under review. So it is really the critic's task, if he has integrity and a love of verse, to be a kind of minor prophet, to pick out the poets who are going to last and those whose work is merely ephemeral and quickly forgotten.
Amongst the present batch, we are lucky to have what Arnold would have called 'a touch- stone'; in other words, an indisputably impor- tant writer, Edward Thomas, who is introduced by one of our own present most highly-thought-of contemporaries, R. S. Thomas. In his brief intro- duction, R. S. Thomas declares, 'Those who are mindful of the vanishing features of the English countryside and anxious fo preserve them, will find in Edward Thomas one who loved them as they do. But there are more lasting aspects of country living, the ever-changing moods of nature and weather, which can say deep things to the human spirit.' R. S. Thomas is very much in sympathy with his namesake and perhaps at times he does overrate him a little. Edward Thomas makes a good touchstone, cer- tainly, but he also makes it only too easy to divide off the good and mediocre from the really bad in this new batch of poetry.
In spite of what I have said earlier, I must admit that these poets dog divide themselves up —and in a rather interesting way. The poets here seem to me either to be overloaded with subject- matter or else to be making a good deal of rather meagre material. In the first group, I would place Peter Porter, whose second book, Poems Ancient and Modern, not only deals with subjects which are often violent, but at others takes on historical or topical matter, but gives the impression that he has so much to say that he does not always know quite what to omit; his style is tight and controlled, nevertheless, and his subjects are mercifully free from too much kiutobiographical material.
Nathaniel Tarn, in his first book, Old Savage! 'Young City, also demonstrates this taut, virile characteristic, though his poems are perhaps usually more concerned with his own experiences and preoccupations than Peter Porter's are; but what is new in both these poets is the way in which they have broken away from a small concern with self and also from over-regular forms. Yet they can write fairly freely without having to resort to Beat poetry or anything that is even remotely derived from the Imagist Move- ment. Like Peter Porter, Nathaniel Tarn seems to be bursting with things to say; almost always he gives one the sense of holding himself in, and this is a matter of subject, as well as of style:
0 to laze and laze and lie down in my soul, to rest on the hard light of after morning! But pheasants scurrying, wet tails tucked low behind them in the streaming sky disturb the fields, ruffle the sky, the farms, hugging their acres to their walls. . . .
This is a very fine, vigorous first book.
Zulfikar Ghose's first collection of poems, The Loss of India, will, inevitably, be compared with Dom Moraes's early work, published several years ago. There is, in fact, little in common between the two writers; where Mories is romantic, derivative, delicate and, on the whole, very little influenced by his Indian youth, Ghose is power- ful and not engrossed with private experience. A vigour inspires his work:
. . . The undergrowth
heaved uneasily with poison of snakes,.
'The heart is free!' people cried. 'What if truth runs out like blood? We have our independence.' The blood of India ran out with my youth.
Three of the other five books under review fall into that category of which I have already spoken--in other words, Patric Dickinson's This Cold Universe, James Reeves's The Questioning Tiger and Gavin Ewart's Londoners (illustrated —surely an ominous fact in itself?) are all pleasant, slight books of verse, but little more; they add nothing to our appreciation of life.
The American, Donald Hall, is an interesting case. At a casual reading, his poems (written mostly in syllabics) would also appear to be rather slight and trivial, at least in subject-matter. In fact, however, A Roof of Tiger Lilies, Hall's third full-length book, is extremely deceptive. The language is pure and the imagery precise; Hall's use of syllabics looks easy, but is really very hardly won. Yet he is no mere experimenter with words and metres; his verse possesses that kind of ominous consideration of the very roots and meanings of things which is more often found in painting or sculpture than in poetry; it is not surprising, then, that the best poems here are meditations on Henry Moore's sculpture.
Of Poetry and Power, subtitled 'Poems Occa- sioned by the Presidency and by the Death of John F. Kennedy,' is not nearly so impressive as it sounds. The first thing one is bound to say about this collection is that it was produced far too soon. Few of the best American and English poets appear in it, and, on the whole, the com- plete anthology is riddled with rhetoric, ill- digested emotion, and embarrassing emotion.
It is not difficult to select the best poem in the book; G. S. Fraser's 'Instead of an Elegy' is a very fine poem indeed; moving and reticent, it catches precisely what 1 suppose most of the world felt about the assassination:
With soldiers' music, rites of war: He had proved bravely when put on!
His soldiers shoot.
Rage echoes far Above the grave at Arlington.