The Buried Epic

PLAYING WITH FIRE by Grevel Lindop
[93pp, 9.95, Carcanet]

Some years ago Grevel Lindop told me that the long poem/epic as a form preceded historically the short poem. So that when the first poem in his latest volume contained the line 'The epic buried inside us never rests', I imagined the reader was in for one or more long poems. But, in fact, Playing With Fire
is a book of short poems, that is, poems of varying length but none of which could be described as long. However, they are none the worse for whatever length they happen to be. As the quoted blurb from The North magazine puts it, 'All the tricks in the poet's bag work for him...'; all perhaps bar the capturing of that elusive music which guarantees true lyric memorability. But, in any case, that is something which visits any poet rarely.

There is a much-commented-upon general weakness in poetry these days from which few poets - myself included - can claim exemption, and this is a too great obsession with personal experience and the making of poems out of autobiography. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that per se if the poet can transcend the autobiographical by stripping away the personal and leaving only the epiphanic moment or moments. Put another way, the notion of poetry as 'the supreme fiction' or, in Coleridge's words 'ventriloquizing for the truth' has somewhat 'gone out of the widow' today. There are various reasons for this such as the precept, dating from the 1930's,  that you should 'only write about what you have experienced'; or the more recent idea that the language of poetry should be brought as close as possible to the vernacular. But, like I say, this doesn't matter if - and it's a big if --
the poet transforms the personal moment or moments of experience into something of universal relevance and of durable verbal structure like, for example, Arnold did with his poem 'Dover Beach' or Keats did with his nightingale ode. But, now, back to Lindop's book.

Playing With Fire
is full of this struggle between the personal and the impersonal, the 'I' and the 'Non-I', and it makes fascinating reading. Not only because it - as all autobiographical effusion must do - makes appeal (successfully or otherwise) to the reader's natural curiosity about the author; but to a fellow poet curious to watch the aforesaid artistic struggle unfold and, even more important for the general reader, to discover hopefully some truly memorable poetry.

An early poem in the book 'Five Lemons' combines for me a number of these 'concerns' I have raised. I find it a beautifully-, even musically-, shaped poem by virtue of the prefatory refrain which begins each of its five stanzas thus, 'Here are five lemons from the poet's garden,' reducing at the last stanza to 'Here is a lemon from the poet's garden'. Though the stanza is a septain and promises rhyming rigour, in fact it limits itself to an occasional and irregular slant rhyme like 'out' and 'shut' or 'foliage' and 'turquoise', with the result it is a very undistracting structure whose main emotional capital, artistically-speaking, resides in  the welcome and welcoming refrain at the start of each stanza. At the same time, for me, the 'autobiographical element' both pleased and distracted me. Because I recognized or guessed that the 'poet's garden' mentioned in the refrain was one I, too, had walked in with Robert Graves when he was alive and was my earliest obsession among living poets. Then, reading the acknowledgements, which mentioned the poem had been read at celebrations in 2000 for the poet's birthday, confirmed the fact. I also happened to have known that Lindop had edited an edition of Graves' The White Goddess
, which was not only the volume that drew me, like many poets, into contact with Graves, but was also written in the Galmpton-Brixham area where I have lived for many years.

Lindop, for me, is at his very best when he coins really beautiful lines like, 'every breath you take is the gift of green', which is a kind of mini-paean to the predominant colour of nature; or 'the subtle starry sweat of the shivering mind'; or where he manages to sustain the concrete reality of good poetry over a greater length:

           'The knitwork tapestry of furballed goosegrass,
           pink spikes of willowherb have run her through

           but still the unstaunched spring whispers and sings
           and will not let her rest and turn to earth

           but long past hope still sets the empty heart
           echoing to the perpetual music of water.'

But back to the autobiographical. I first encountered Grevel Lindop's name through Kathleen Raine ,who founded the Temenos Academy 'devoted to the arts of the imagination', and who told me that 'When  I am gone, Grevel Lindop will take over after me.', or words to that effect. Kathleen had a Blakean obsession with 'the Imagination' but struggled hard to transcend the personal in her work. It seems that, for a while after her death, Lindop did  become closely associated with the Temenos Academy; and when I finally encountered his work I was expecting either the sort of spiritual poetry one associates with, say, Rumi; or a poetry of struggle between the mundane and the transcendental that one notes in Yeats or R.S. Thomas...or Kathleen Raine. I discovered the latter sort of poetry in Lindop's work.

Well, now, all that said - how am I to read a seemingly brothel poem like 'Afterwards', with its pertinent question 'What do we talk about? Sex, mostly.'; or the extraordinary twenty three sonnets 'set in an East London strip club'?   Sonnets as well-fashioned as ever 'Five Lemons' was which I praised earlier. The sonnets, especially, are so authentic that it is hard to believe they are simply the fantasizing of an aging academic, who has lost sight of Coleridge's distinction between the fancy and the imagination. Earlier in the volume there is confessional evidence of Lindop being a well-married man with a beautiful wife, though a man who, when younger, was not short on sexual adventures. So if I take this sequence of pornosonnets as autobiographical I end up with one mystery: that of an unhappily married man; and if I take them as fiction then, like I say, I run into the problem of: are they trying to lead me to a greater and more spiritual truth (which is the true and proper exercise of the imagination: whether in Shakespeare's Lear
,  the parables of Christ or The Dhammapada.) or are they simple fantasy? In the end I must confess myself nonplussed.

But, puzzled or not by my failure to get a more satisfactory purchase on the poetry of Grevel Lindop, I found this volume a fascinating read.

              William Oxley 2006