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  THE RESTORATION OF A REPUTATION


DEPARTURES: SELECTED POEMS
by David Wevill
[144pp, £9.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD]

The more reviews of poetry I read ­ and write ­ the more I am forced to recognise just how random the business is. So little review-space is available to poetry these days (one may say this space is rapidly contracting) and so much (too much?) poetry being published that readers either have to rely on friends’ recommendations or on reviews featured in whichever magazines they subscribe to. It’s all a bit of a hotchpotch. With the amount being published and what I have called elsewhere the on-going globalisation of poetry, not many readers can have anything remotely approaching, say ten-percent of what’s available or have a similar set of books on their shelves to anyone else. Or keep faith, say, with a particular publisher’s list. How many ­ include reviewers ­ can, in the circumstances, have much of an overview of the current poetry scene, never mind what went before?

Which publishers send what books where? Who chooses which books will be reviewed and by what criteria? Do reviews establish/confirm reputations? How do they affect sales? Would reviewers
have bought the books they write about? Does the best work always rise naturally to the top and get itself universally recommended? Why then are those we admire at one moment lost sight of at another ­ most obviously immediately after their deaths? Who is currently reading, for example, W.S. Graham, Norman Nicholson?

Editors normally send out to reviewers (people they may even have come across casually or fortuitously) they think will respond in certain ways, preferably in keeping with the particular magazine’s tone and style. Some reviewers, it has to be said, have agendas, are patently proscriptive and/or partial to a specific and limited ­ and limiting ­ idea of poetry. A review in one magazine can be positive, in another negative; poets can have enemies and pals among reviewers. Those who have published collections and collected reviews of them will know what wildly subjective and contradictory opinions are sometimes on offer. Who are we to trust? Certainly not those proscriptive reviewers who approve or disapprove of certain kinds of subject matter or certain styles. Witness the bewildering seesawing debates about freeverse and form, objective and subjective approaches, lyric and narrative, street-cred and élitism, experimental and mainstream, modernist and traditional, accessibility and ‘difficulty’, etc.

When I worked in Higher Education I used to tell students that I didn’t give a cuss whether they liked or disliked a piece or writing: their job (and mine) was to demonstrate how it worked and how good it was. It sometimes did not occur to them that one can like or dislike something for quite wrong or misguided reasons. To caricature grossly, it is possible to say that because one cannot subscribe, say, to the tenets of Christianity that those poets who can and do are incapable of producing work one would want to read or are, because of their way of seeing the world, somehow ‘limited’. Milton, George Herbert limited?

Reviewers too can have prejudices or be influenced by fashions… what’s in, what’s out.

As a critic of other people’s writing ­ at the level of poet-friends who send me work for comment or at writing workshops I’ve run ­ I have always maintained it is not my business to tell people what they should or shouldn’t write about. Rather it is to look closely at the manner
of writing, the successes and failures of a particular selection and arrangement of words. I have to admit that writers (especially budding ones) don’t always understand this and, because they are either vain or insecure, take criticism meant to be constructive and objective ­ as is humanly possible ­ as personal. Ian Hamilton has written ‘Very few friendships can survive your saying: “I like you but I don’t like your poems.” Much better to say: “I don’t like you but I like your poems.” ’ This may not be the whole truth but there is certainly truth in it, as I know from experience.

As I see it, the reviewer‘s job is first of all to recommend, to draw attention to what is valuable by being sensitive to and by being able to distinguish those qualities that make a poem what it is and a particular poet’s voice worth attending to. It is also to ‘place’ the work under consideration in a meaningful context, ultimately that of poetry itself. Because of limited review-space there are good poets out there who do not get the attention they deserve, while at the same time there are mediocre and poor poets getting more (favourable/unfavourable) attention than they deserve. A reviewer shouldn’t waste everyone’s time by nit-picking or loftily dismissing: if they think a book isn’t worth writing about they should refrain from doing so…that is unless they passionately feel they owe it to poetry to draw attention to badly-written work. In the event, the reviewer’s job is to service poetry and not their own egos. They should ideally offer judgement rather than opinion.

The above thoughts and questions were prompted by the arrival in the post of Departures: Selected Poems
by David Wevill. As is sometimes the case with review copies, it came unannounced. I confess I wasn’t much struck with the presentation and did not, to my shame, recognise the publisher (though I was interested to note that he has, among his poets, Roy Fisher and Nathaniel Tarn). I did however remember the name of the poet from The Penguin Modern Poets series that began appearing in the early 70’s. My immediate reaction was: here’s a ‘forgotten’ poet attempting a comeback, one who had been part of the scene thirty or forty years ago, a Canadian who had spent some ten years in England before going to live in America, one who had published four volumes of poetry here. Part of the reaction was the expectation that the poems might turn out to be more interesting as an aspect of literary history (a jigsaw piece) than in their own right, that they would palpably show the influences of poets associated with The Group (Philip Hobsbaum, Martin Bell, Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove, George Macbeth, Edward Lucie-Smith) with whom Wevill once associated and who had opposed themselves to the so-called Movement whose presence was first made known to us in Robert Conquest’s New Lines of 1956. I also remembered the name as part of the notorious Hughes/Plath story: Hughes’s affair with David Wevill’s wife, Assia (she committed suicide in 1969), is too well-known to be dragged up here (see Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Ted Hughes or Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame)… though, clearly, the experience lies behind some of the poems in the volume under discussion.

In his Foreword Wevill admits that his poems are ‘rooted in personal concerns’ and that, though he is ‘blessed with a living family…ghosts remain strong. They live on in the bloodstream, and are present in most of the poems. There is a female shadow in many of the poems, which I’d hesitate to call muse or anima.’ The Jungian word ‘anima’ (The Oxford Companion
to Twentieth Century Poetry tells us that Wevill is engaged in a ‘Jungian search’ ­ which it describes as being ‘circular’) is a clue to the poems: they are not at all openly confessional (if we look for Assia we will only find her ‘shadow’ …another Jungian word): they are more like narrative reports back from an exploration of the hinterland of the anima mundi ­ Jung’s Collective Unconscious. In this sense they have often have a dreamlike or mythic quality. This does not mean they are nebulous. They have all the vividness and exactness of dreams. Wevill’s expression ‘rooted in’ also clearly implies they are not raw expressions or re-enactments of real-life situations. Such situations may have provided the trigger for poems but the poems travel elswhere: Wevill is are not content to swim on the surface; he dives hazardously into the depths.

Looking back over his early work, he declares ‘metaphor and image are still my natural tools of composition’ ­ which suggests that his formative years may have been influenced by the neo-romantic forties and the imagistic surrealism of the so-called New Apocalypse poets and, perhaps, Dylan Thomas… lines like ‘In this sea I find a lake, / Its white-ribbed waves and grey deep flesh / Drags skeletons up by the hair, / Every wavelet a luminous eyeball.’ Or ‘The sinewy nerves of a cabbage now/Contain my head. Its pulse-count / Falls to a trickle, under the icing of hope.’ If so, such influences are, in shadow terms, mere flickers. Wevill has a distinctive voice which compels attention, engenders a kind of concentration that most current poetry fails to engage in. In other words, like other poets I admire, he is totally inimitable. His poems go deeper than those of most contemporary poets.

It is difficult to realise that before the age of thirty Wevill had already written at least one terrific poem, ‘The Birth of a Shark’.
Consider these lines:

       The shark rose gradually. He was half-grown,
       About four feet: strength of a man’s thigh
       Wrapped in emery, his mouth a watery
       Ash of brambles. As he rose
       His shadow paled and entered the sand
       Dissolved, in the twinkling shoals of driftsand
       Which his thrusting tail spawned.

They have that wonderful empathy you find in Lawrence; the rhythms re-enact the movement of the fish and hypnotically engage the reader; the language has a Keatsian sensuousness (‘emery’, ‘spawned’) which makes you see and feel what is being described. In the act of reading you become the poem.

Nature, according to the Foreword,
is ‘a strong presence’ in the poems. Again, consider the lines from ‘Meditations on a Pine-Cone’:

       The pine-cone’s whorled
       Tongues; woody cavities opening red,
       Stubbed, as they touch the air ­
       These rough hooked knuckles and deserted
       Seed-rooms, after the long birth
       And sudden drop ­
       Rain softens now. Rain brings peace over the grass.

This is observation of a very precise kind, a poetry that fulfils one of poetry’s functions ­ that of making you see the familiar as if for the very first time. This kind of writing can, I think, stand shoulder to shoulder with anything Wevill’s old pal, Hughes, achieved. But the poem is not just a descriptive account of a randomly-picked-up natural phenomenon: it is a meditation on death and the transience of things; its setting is a cemetery where ‘living mourners’ are ‘grateful to live / Keeping their better selves above the grave, / Burying the unmentionable deep, beyond false touch’. It is that word ‘false’ that takes the dive to the deeper level of significance we mentioned earlier.

Wevill has been an accomplished poet from his late twenties. Reflecting on the way his career as a writer may have developed, he has this to say in his Foreword
(it is worth quoting at length):

Over the years, I notice, the voice in the poems has grown quieter,
the syntax has changed, the language has become less energetic and
more reflective. But the field I think has remained much the same. It
has often been said that one writes the same poem over and over again,
but in different guises. I am reminded of a thought of Robert Calasso’s,
in KA: Stories of the Minds and Gods of India,
where he writes:
“In the beginning is always something that later gets hidden”. It is a
genetic intuition that might apply to poetry as well as other forms of
life, a germ of first identity that is hidden but not lost in the passage
of time. “…an inner persistence toward a source”, to borrow from the
poet Robert Duncan. This, I think, is the journey one is making when
starting a poem. The risk of failure is always there, but the compulsion
seems imperative.

This is modest and deeply truthful. If the poems do become quieter, less energetic (though that may be over-modest), more reflective, it does not mean they have lost any of their authority. The voice is strong throughout. Consider these lines from a poem, ‘Answers’, from a collection published two years ago:

       What is the time of day
       listening in a stone
       warmed in an old woman’s hand
       on a concrete bench
       in the square in an old town

       a name older than mine
       though grass drifts in the air
       at the same instant I hear
       the wind blow her skirts from black to shadow
       like weather changing

Or these from a poem called ‘Landscape’ in the same collection:

       In autumn the silences grow loud.
       The sounds become echoes.
       I have been gone a long time, they
       changed my number, the branch
       I hung from has been cut.
       In a room the shadow dolls
       play across bare walls, there are
       fresh spiders. The music I heard came
       from outdoors, celebrations of air, wind
       rain, at the ear’s edges, listening.
       Why won’t you come in?

For the past thirty years David Wevill, now in his late sixties, has lived in Austin, Texas, and his poetry has been appearing in his native Canada (Exile Editions, Toronto). As the blurb says ‘With his move across the Atlantic, he fell from view in Britain’. The reputation he had established with his four British publications was forgotten. Departures
is a timely restoring to our attention of a very fine poet and a clear indication of what we have been missing. It is a must read… almost a matter of conscience.

         © Matt Simpson 2003