NAVIGATORS AND EXPLORERS
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
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
go on, let, me see it.’ I surrender
dark blue exercise book, ruled feint,
little cracked down the spine. Half tender
teasing, you enunciate my quaint
so serious phrases. Not what you’d choose!
it be, then, my generation went
last ramble through Palgrave? All those O’s
buds and birds and streams,
they litter the pages now, I suppose,
archaic. Your voice seems
astonished that this style was me.
room grows dark. An early headlamp gleams.
metal fittings, knobs, the still-blank eye
entertains our evenings. Soon
will swamp us. Child, how can you see?
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,
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
had not thought of the music,
in all that time. Coming, it
like living in a high place.
So to return to it
to name the season and take
[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,
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
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.
say in the shadow
sailing ship dropped anchor.
the actively volcanic,
signals centring sky and ocean.
them by their tongues of magma.
to this island, cooled, its people…
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
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
the fuzzy edge
the umpteenth time
the umpteenth night, beneath
thousand phases of moonlight
not a verifiable
to rely on.
wings over all
let the beast’s
one clown reckons that animal
be easier to trap