Vol. 36 No 3-4
Greek Poetry: New Voices and Ancient Echoes
The Poetry of Ford Madox Ford, Ford Madox Ford, Selected Poems, (Carcanet, £9.95)
In the preface to his Collected Poems of 1913, Ford Madox Ford said:
I may really say that for a quarter of a century I have kept
before me one unflinching aim — to register my own times in
terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are
better poets and better prose writers than myself to have the
The statement could stand as an epigraph to all Ford's writing and, indeed, to his entire life. None encapsulates better, however, what he was actually doing in his poetry, and why it made such an impact and was so influential. Pound, who never paid much attention to Ford's novels, was of this opinion when, in two reviews of that first Collected, he said Ford was 'the best critic in England, one might say the only critic of importance' and 'we could not be far wrong in calling Mr Hueffer the best lyricist in England'. Certainly, given Ford's standing in for the best that was being written and influence on contemporary writers, it is 'scandalous' that so much of Ford's own writing has been so long out of print and so much, the second Collected of 1936, for instance, has never appeared in England. The word, 'scandalous', is Max Saunder's for the lack of a Complete Poems and the unavailability of Ford's poetry. It comes in his introduction to the Selected Poems, another most welcome and handsomely produced item of a number of other works by Ford, which Carcanet Press are bringing out in their project, The Millenium Ford. Even if only a Selected, and no poems after 1931 have been included, its importance, also because the poetry is presented chronologically, is beyond a doubt. For the first time, Ford's readers are in some position to discover an essential dimension of Ford's uniqueness as a writer and to reassess his value as a writer as a whole.
That Ford's poetry does, indeed, 'register his own times in his own time', and is not merely a dated period piece, is the mark of its uniqueness. So one can appreciate Pound's championing of Ford, and note the older poet's importance for poetry certainly up unto the War. Altogether singular were his bringing of prose to poetry in his flexibly rhymed vers libre and his naturalness of speech. In these respects, Ford brought the vitality and directness of the native tradition back to English poetry, 'a certain limpidity and precision' (one thinks of Jonson's conversational pieces grafted on Horace's Sermons), lost to English through the enlightenment (whereas this was not the case in French and German), and which, Ford said, first came through his great aunt, Christina Rossetti, rather than through Wordsworth, who 'was so busied about the ordinary word that he never found time to think about le mot juste'. In that Flaubertain searching for le mot juste, the truthful rendering of impressions rather than of facts, which Basil Bunting saw as Ford's impressionism or 'circuitous' technique, Ford gives, as John Peale Bishop has said, 'a record of his own emotions' which 'is meant, too, to record the contemporary world; which is so realistic on the surface, so romantic in its depths'. The progression d'effects, as Ford called it, and the discursiveness, make the poetry difficult to quote from in short. 'I need length —', Ford says, 'and as often as not preposterous length — to get an effect'. But there are examples of short poems. In 'In Adversity', the accumulative effect of this plumbing of an emotion through its surface and its depth, the prosaic quality of the verse, and the flexible rhyme are all present, and the poem is a good example of that 'certain limpidity and precision':
Cold hands, warm heart?
Then let the wind blow chill
On our clasped hands who fare across the hill.
Hard lot, hot love?
Then let our pathway go
Through lone grey lands, knee-deep amid snow.
There is, at the same time, a musical quality to Ford's free verse, which Pound was also the first to notice, and which is striking and original. Ford began as a composer; the early poems were written to be set to music. In the translucence of the verse and its modulation of different voices, Ford's knowledge of instrumental music and ear for the distinctiveness of a voice are unmistakably apparent. Perhaps most remarkable about his verse is his gift for perfectly intoning the quiet speaking voice. Here too, as in 'Wife to Husband', the composer, a master in phrasing and in timeshifts, joins hands with his enviable capacity for the sublimely cadenced prose sentence:
If I went past you down the hill,
And you had never seen my face before,
Would all your being feel the sudden thrill
You said it felt, once more?
If I went past you through this shaw
Would you be all a-quiver at the brush
Of my trailed garments; would the sudden hush
You said the black-birds' voices had in awe
Of my first coming, fall upon the place
Once more, if you had never seen my face
Nor ever heard my passing by before,
And nought had passed of all that was of yore?
The notion of music and voices, integral to the progression d'effects, is central to Ford's use of parody and pastiche, which predates Joyce, Pound and Eliot, and to the aim 'to register my own times in my own time'. Especially noteworthy is his parody of sentiment, through which, as Saunders says, he was 'registering an ironic self-consciousness of the clichés the Edwardian mind could not do without'. 'The Three-Ten' is a much cited example of Ford's apprehension of his own moment ('the present pavement') within an age still holding on to a different sense of time and custom ('the fields of Bayswater'):
When in the prime of may-Day time dead lovers
How bright the grass in lads' eyes was, how easy
Here were green hills, ...
But see, but see! The clock marks three above
the Kilburn Station.
Those maids, thank God! are 'neath the sod and
all their generation.
But, the poetry, as all Ford's writing, reverberates with the voices of the past, of Greek tragedy, Old Testament prophecy, Minnesingers, Troubadours, Renaissance lyrics, rural dialect, Shakespeare, Browning (not merely with the voices of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and Edwardian England), and not only because Ford perceived that much of his own time saw itself as pastiche:
Close the book and say good-bye to everything;
Pass up from the shore and pass by byre and stall,
— For the smacks shall sail home on the tail of the tides,
And the kine shall stand deep in the sweet water-sides,
And they still shall go burying, still wedding brides;
But I must be gone in the morning.
Although, as Saunders says, Ford was the poet to appeal to the Edwardian and 'to post-war ears, his practice seems haunted by the mind of earlier times', there is a further distinctiveness which will keep haunting his readers of any age and which sets him apart. This is the vitality of his pastiche, which is of a piece with a refusal to 'literarify' past voices, and a sincerity, through which he said quite directly what he meant. Any of the war poems written by the officer in the Welch Regiment reveals this need, the courage, to tell the truth, where 'the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain reality in certain aspects':
I wonder, my dear, can you stick it?
As we should say: 'Stick it, the Welch!
In the dark of the moon
Here, as throughout the poetry, is that unique Fordian combination of a seriousness, even an un-English earnestness, and the effortlessness (or is it the inevitability?), as in true conversation, of things getting across just as they are being said, or not at all. In the first Great-War poem, 'Antwerp', of October 1914 (which, Eliot said, was 'the only poem I have met with on the subject of war'), what is 'the precision of effect'? It is the slow, subtle, gathering force of rhythms effective in the repetitions, intimating perfectly the pathos of those women deadened by worry and waiting at home in Flanders or in England:
This is the Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman — a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.
This is Charing Cross;
It is one o'clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud...
And now!... That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another...
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.
There is so much pain.
'All Art of course', said Ford, 'is just a means of expression. It is the way in which one soul expresses itself to — or in the alternative — conceals itself from, other human beings'.
It is of course Ford, not Browning, Rossetti or anyone else, in conversation, Ford speaking in his own voice with a tenderness and intimacy nowhere else to be found, that we are hearing, and wish to go on hearing. Famous for his conversation, it is not surprising that Ford was a poor public speaker. The public way did not suit his temperament or notions of what literature or speaking about it entailed. There were many reasons for Ford's leaving England, but the one he most frequently gives is that after the war there was no longer anyone he could talk to. The quietness and casualness of intimate talk between souls — Ford's voice with its characteristic dying-fall, the silences, or near silences, in those separative dots and dashes, the musing and pausing realized through the variation in line-length and spacing, the turning about and returning to a thought, the going-off as if on a tangent, the fluctuations in stride, the faltering and the picking-up of stride, all usual to conversation — remain inimitable:
But one is English,
Though one be never so much of a ghost;
And if most of your life have been spent in the craze to
What you want most,
You will go on relinquishing,
You will go on vanquishing
Human longings, even
God! You will have forgotten what the rest of the world is
on fire for —
The madness of desire for the long and quiet embrace,
The coming nearer of a tear-wet face;
Forgotten the desire to slake
The thirst, and the long, slow ache,
And to interlace
Lash with lash, lip with lip, limb with limb, and the fingers
of the hand with
You will have forgotten...
'We wait', Ford wrote in 1905, 'for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and, without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance'. This is exactly Ford's achievement. But, he could not have done this if he had not found his own rhythms. C.H. Sisson, admirer of Ford, has said that 'a writer's originality resides in his rhythm'. The inimitable rhythms of Ford's conversation, that combination of irony and poignancy which forms the peculiar cadence of his verse, make him into an entirely original poet. Whether in prose or in verse, his subject matter, of one piece with deep psychological insight into the fabric of human nature, was of course, Ford being Ford, always fittingly the same: 'Human tribulations are the only things worth writing about'. Saunders notes at the end of his introduction: 'Ultimately the impression left by his cadences, whether lyrical or conversational, is of a personality'. He then quotes Ford on vers libre: 'however you (...) phrase your thoughts, the rhythm of your thought phrases will be your personality. It will be your literary personality... your true one'.
- 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