No 5 - 1982
A Strenuous Act
Roy Fisher : Poems 1955-1980. Oxford University Press £7.95
It is not possible to come to rewarding terms with the poetry of Roy Fisher without having first taken some kind of critical cognisance of the form and meaning inherent in what is loosely called “realism”. This is because Fisher, throughout his innovations, wrestles with ‘realisrn’ as a necessary foe, the way Jacob once strove with the angel. Indeed, Fisher’s poetic track discloses a love-hate conflict that is acted out within his own special talent for descriptive accuracy. Fisher is an artist who is paradoxically very much in revolt against the impact of his own best capacities, and his Collected Works are a chronicle of the phases and moods of that revolt, expressing a force that sways perpetually toward, and then away from, the magnetic pole of “the real”.
In painting, the representational mode is built on an illusion of likeness, and relies on the process of recognition as a basis for response. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are variants on the representational mode. They fall, in the broadest sense, within the ‘realist’ camp. But with Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism, three distinctive and separate currents of non-figurative communication appear. All three movements play elaborate games with the ground rules of normal perception.
It was relatively easy, when the historic moment came, within a graphic medium, in which outline and colour already predominated as “linguistic” means, to make a swift change and throw certain traditional structural assumptions aside. But this has not been the case in poetry, tied as each body of literature is to the dictates of a national or regional tongue. Whatever the root, language lends itself almost instinctively to the art of narrative, and of description. It is essentially a referential medium where practical uses first developed through the functions of naming, impersonating, recalling and explaining. Vast numbers of words, though semantically open in their potential, become closely focussed in their references as soon as they arc combined into a fictive purpose. Indeed there is in their very being an urge to narration; and there is, moreover, a will for that narrative to evoke an implied world which will resemble the elements of a known and subjectively experienced life.
In general, language seems tethered very tightly to its referential function. The urge to primary and mainly visual representation is as strong as in painting, but this goes along with the exercise of a unique latitude: the “picturing” is to be done by each individual reader’s or hearer’ s imagination. There is no ‘fait accompli’ of a painted world on canvas. Ins toad, a private envisioning develops in response to the given code. In narration, there is a unique blend of personal seeing with a simple comprehension of situation as implied by text.
Poetry, as an art, then, has not found it easy or even pleasant to oppose the referential tendency, and its many conventions and devices. Rather it has continued to evolve by going along with the tendency, by extending its range and depth of penetration - in fact, by taking delight in the power of reference, as such. Admittedly, in France, the temporary ascendancy of surrealism in the 1920s overflowed into cinema and into poetry, and the dominant effect at that time lies there for all to see. But in both America and Britain, resistance, outside graphic art, though not total, was, and is, very strong.
Surrealism, non-figuration, and autonomous illusionism have become active at a time when creative artists felt obliged to re-examine the structural pre-suppostions of their inherited art forms. For this reason, such work produces creators who are technically self-aware and technically conscious of self, even though they may make appeals to the force of the unconscious. In such work, imagination, invention, adventurousness, and, sometimes, highly decorative impulses, are at a premium. There is a desire to change the language for the sake of the language, and for the sake, too, of change. Fictiveness begins to take precedence over reference, and thrives on unreferenced pictorial fantasias.
Of himself, Roy Fisher , in a confessional moment, writes :
I want to believe in a single world. That is why I am keeping my eyes at home while I can. The light keeps on separating the world like a table knife: it sweeps across what I see and suggests what I do not. The imaginary comes to me with as much force as the real, the remembered with as much force as the immediate. (from The Wind at Night)
This admission explains much. Whereas, in realism proper, the relation of the imaginative act to the referenced world is subordinate, and the referenced social or individual world imposes a discipline upon the free swirl of the subjective, Fisher goes flat against this priority. Instead, the actual and the imaginal are to have simple parity, no more than that. The immediately perceived is to have just simple parity of status with the resources of memory. Such is the program.
The authoritarianism of a realist poetic is to be replaced by a free-floating anarchism. But, since the English language itself stays stubbornly referential and syntactically stable, quite independent of the inclinations of any particular poet, difficulties, once this course is adopted, in relation to the uses of words and their connotative roles, inevitably arise. Where is the reader to locate Fisher’s beautiful fictions? In what realm? If the fictions do not refer to some possible, actual, historic world, past or present, how is one to take them ? As autonomous and self-referencing zones, where meaning threatens to dissolve ? As credible fictions adrift in the womb of literature ? Or, perhaps, as descriptions in which a deliberate ambiguity has been planted, that acts simultaneously on our readiness for both belief and disbelief ?
Such doubts as these have unsettled a number of critics, who, deprived of their customary props, have not known how to react. In Fisher’s poetry, the task of determining the precise status of the fiction, and the reference-function of each particular poem is laid upon the reader himself. There are, of course, enough clues, and cues, to be found. It is just the case, here, that the reader must teach himself not to take anything for granted. The reader has to be alert to Fisher’s particular technical attitude in each and every poem, if he is to get the language right, and if he is to respond sensibly to the music
Fisher does not make it any easier, either, for his public, in that his own uncertainty and passion for invention cause him to leap about from mode to mode. He constantly rings his changes according to the mood and preoccupation of the moment. He is a most strenuous writer to live with.
Much of the time though, Fisher strives hard to eliminate the autobiographical self from his fictions. Rooms and places are described as if he were not there. The imagination works as if to stress his abscence. He is constantly working to evacuate the personal from his texts, to displace himself to the edge of the page :-
In my poems there’s seldom
any I or you -
you know me, Mary;
you wouldn’t expect it of me -
The night here is humid:
there are two of us sitting out
on the bench under the window;
two invisible ghosts
lift glasses of white milk
and the lamplight
stiffens the white fence opposite.
(from Of the Empirical Self and For Me )
Such attempts to recall and view oneself dispassionately, from the outside, as it were, create perverse spectral effects. But he cannot abdicate entirely, ever, and he knows it:
The things we make out of language
turn into common property.
To feel responsible
I put my own footprint back in.
He does not seem aware that it is precisely when he takes the trouble ‘to put his own footprint back in’ that his poetry has most clarity and power, as for example in The Billiard Table , the tenth and final poem in the sequence Interiors with Various Figures:-
Morning. Eleven. The billiard table has been slept on.
A mess of sheets on the green baize
Suggests a surgery without blood.
Starting the day shakily, you keep glancing at it
Till the tangle looks like abandoned grave-clothes.
And watching it from where I sit
I see it’s the actual corpse, the patient dead under
A third party playing gooseberry, a pure stooge, the
ghost of a paper bag;
Something that stopped in the night.
Have you ever felt
We’ve just been issued with each other
Like regulation lockers
And left to get on with it ?
Nobody would expect
We’d fetch up in a place like this,
Making unscheduled things like what’s on the table.
No longer part of us, it s still ours.
Bring the milk jug, and let’s christen it.
In The Billiard Table, everything locks into place: image, technique, major metaphor, and diction - all work in a fine rhythmic unison. The clarity is unclouded. However, more commonly, Fisher will not indulge himself to the positive degree. One feels that essentially he is much more dedicated to the achievement of a technical tour-de-force such as his poem The Trace. Here, the autobiographical posture is eliminated, and he moves to an imprecise but vivid departure from figuration. We are denied recognitions but are given images which lie at the treshold of ordinary perception. We are led to see, but not to define. Reference is withheld. The experience of the poem is like witnessing a semi-abstract painting, itself in motion.
Although at first it was single
it travelled as ink falls
through cold water
and gleamed in a vein
out of a darkness
that turned suddenly on its back
and was dusty instead
letting go forth as it must
a plummet of red wax
from whose course when they lost it
rings of dull steel
like snake ribs in a sidelong curve
twisted away and lifted
to clamp on to a concrete
precipice broken with rust
and with shrubby growths
clustering under it
Here, something wonderful is happening in an unnamed world, as, sometimes, we may witness in those lucid nonlogical moments before sleep swallows up the whole mind.
Success or failure, nothing like this has happened in English poetry before. This must be acknowledged.
For good measure, the collected Poems 1955-1980 finishes with a full-blooded venture into surrealism, The Ship’s Orchestra. This longish poem provides a medium for the exercise of Fisher’s considerable sense of humour.
Looked at in bulk the collection reveals the poet’s talent ranging over the whole spectrum band of technical possibility, lying between a severe realism at one end, and various forms of free fantasy at the other. It is as if he has applied the aesthetic approaches of graphic art to the potentials of modern English in order to find out what can be done. A close reading of his work, besides generating a subtle enjoyment, should cause any practising poet to re-think his or her taken-for-granted techniques, and to perceive more clearly the limitations of mainstream composition as at present manifested in the magazines and anthologies.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The