NOT SUCH AN OLD BUFFER AFTER ALL
 
Selected Poems,
Roy Fuller (232pp, 12.95, Carcanet)
 

Poets change throughout their lives and often adopt new styles - the case of Yeats springs to mind, or Auden post-1939. Sometimes it is external events driving such changes (the latter), sometimes it is an aesthetic or artistic development (the former). Roy Fuller's poetic output, gathered here in an attractive new volume, provides a further instance of this.
 
Early Fuller began at the tail-end of the 1930s, that 'low' dishonest decade', as Auden termed it. The first poems selected here discuss the Spanish Civil War and, like many products of that experience, breathe a vivid sense of engagement and contemporary urban landscapes. 'To My Brother', for instance, reeks of wartime anxiety:
 
            ..nothing can save me tonight
            From the scenic railway journey over
            Europe to locate my future grave...
 
There is an atmosphere of late-1930s political disenchantment behind some of these pieces and others describe Fuller's navy experiences in Africa and elsewhere.
 
Fast-forward to the 1950s and mid-period Fuller is somehow at times bundled in with Movement poetry: the suburban, quotidian, daily existence probed by the poems is not a million miles from minor Larkin and Amis. Those familiar with the turquoise Collected Poems
published by Deutsch in 1962 will be equally familiar with the first 80 pages of this collection, too.
 
However, there is a late Fuller style which is very different, encompassing the many volumes published in the second half of his life, from around Buff
(1965) right up to 1993's posthumous Last Poems and this later poetry is the real reason for seeking out this book. In his 1957 collection, Brutus's Orchard, Fuller began to write conversation poems, allowing him to include a wider range of material. As Neil Powell points out in his helpful afterword, the key example of this is 'The Ides of March', a dramatic monologue in which Brutus, in his orchard, awaits the arrival of his conspirators, whom he greets as 'comrades'. This urbane figure thoughtfully considers the portents, his loyalties, how compromised he is: it is a piece written by someone who has lived through the trials of Spain and the cold war tensions of the 1950s.
 
This prepared the way for Fuller's late style of unrhymed syllabic metre, from New Poems
(1968) onwards, and these poems take up the final 110 pages of this selection. The gains in scope made in his conversational monologues were built upon in these final volumes, often in long sonnet sequences. To take a random example, 'Shakespeare and Co.' from the 1975 collection From the Joke Shop, considers late Beethoven, Shakespeare's late comedies, the nature of suffering, Richard Dadd's delusions and autumnal creativity - that final topic a recurring trope. These are poems with a surfeit of content, therefore, but written in a deceptively easy, almost conversational tone - 'when all's said and done', the aforementioned poem concludes. This is, of course, an illusion to mask Fuller's considerable  craftsmanship, but it is an alluring trick, giving these late poems a charm and lightness that often works against their darkening subject-matter.
 
Having achieved this high-wire balancing act, Fuller became intensely prolific in his last ten years: 60 pages here cover some
of his last three volumes, highlights being excerpts from 'Quatrains of an Elderly Man' (the same trick, repeated with ease, in a mere four lines) and the entire sequence 'Later Sonnets from the Portuguese', in which the poet adopts the persona of an estranged wife. As his son John notes in the foreword these late poems work by allowing the circumstantial to gradually build up a cumulative power, and are perhaps best read as entire sequences for this reason.
 
Even this selection only begins to scratch the surface of the later work - Available for Dreams
(1989), for example, is represented by 15 pages from a 150-page collection. As a one-volume introduction to Fuller's entire corpus, it is difficult to see how this could be bettered. For those who find Larkin on old age irredeemably bleak and misanthropic, here is the answer - Roy Fuller, jokey, meditative, civilised, occasionally mordant, on the dying of the light.
 
      M.C.Caseley 2012