No 5 - 1975
Some Aspects of the Poetry of Roy Fisher
DONALD DAVIE devotes a chapter of his book Thomas Hardy and British Poetry to the work of Roy Fisher and clearly rates it very highly. I would like to register my own modest agreement with Professor Davie’s estimate; I am, however, out of sympathy with some features of his approach. Though by no means claiming that Fisher is an overtly political poet, Professor Davie looks at his poetry from a political point of view, seeing in it an implicit rejection of ideology, of the right or left, and an endorsement, despite reservations, of the attitudes that inform democracy on the current British model. The discussion, as one would of course expect from Professor Davie, is extremely interesting, but I think that the emphasis is misleading. In my view, ‘philosophical’, in the broad sense in which, for example, Coleridge fairly used it of Wordsworth, is a more useful word than ‘political’ for thinking about Fisher’s poetry. The reference to Wordsworth comes to mind (though it obviously shouldn’t be taken too far) because Fisher, through all his major sequences of poems, is concerned with the pitfalls of distortion, reductiveness and detachment that face the organising impulse in its attempts to shape the immediate elements of feeling and perception. What follows is an account of Fisher’s developing interest in this theme. For the poetry up to 1968 I rely on Collected Poems: the Ghost of a Paper Bag, and for the poetry subsequent to that I refer to Matrix and The Cut Pages, both published in 1971.
In his early poems Fisher typically appears as a conspicuously detached observer. This is vividly conveyed, for instance, in ‘Toyland’, where the poet sees people as though they are painted lead toys. The detachment goes along with bafflement; you can’t join in the game if you don’t know what the rules are. The poet closes the poem with a comment on the people he has seen passing by as he sits at his window:
The secret laugh of the world picks them up and shakes them like
They behave as if nothing happened; maybe they no longer notice.
I notice. I laugh with the laugh, cultivate it, make much of it,
But I still don’t know what the joke is, to tell them.
A similar bafflement is expressed in ‘Linear’, and the feeling that his detachment is almost an oddity is present in ‘The Intruder’, where an image from the past floats suddenly up into the poet’s mind, though he cannot connect it with the rest of his experience.
Despite the bafflement, however, the images in these poems are rendered with startling immediacy and with a conscious gusto which the poet explicitly records when, in ‘Toyland’, he describes himself as ‘loving it all’. There is a tension, one might say, between the enjoyment of vivid fragments and a need to shape them into a structure, except that ‘tension’ implies no obvious strain — the poet is no cultivator of agony. But there remains the felt problem of establishing a relation with his world which will give meaning (implying unity) to it, without robbing its elements of the full individuality he so much enjoys.
The features I have sketched are prominent in City, a collection of pieces in prose and verse which forms the longest sequence in Collected Poems. Here Fisher speaks directly of the detachment I have already noted; he feels it as an inhibiting force:
Lovers turn to me faces of innocence where I would expect wariness. They have disappeared for entire hours into the lit holes of life, instead of lying stunned on its surface as I and so many, do for so long; or instead of raising their heads cautiously and scenting the manifold airs that blow through the streets. (p. 34)
Professor Davie sees this as an anti-Lawrencian attitude which lies at the basis of Fisher’s art — ‘an art which sees the intensities and ecstasies of the sexual and personal life only as so many dangerous distractions’ (p. 171). But the lovers here, surely, have the best of it, and the poet’s ‘lying stunned’ on the surface of life represents a conscious disability. The lovers don’t have all of it; in the surrounding context it is suggested that they are in danger of losing some sensitivity of discrimination. But the poet’s own limitation looms largest: it might fairly be called lack of trust — a theme we shall find becoming important later.
As before the feeling of detachment is accompanied by a delight in fragmented images:
Outside the Grand Hotel, a long-boned carrot-haired girl with glasses, loping along, and with strips of bright colour, rich, silky green and blue, in her soft clothes. For a person made of such scraps she was beautiful. (p. 31)
The illustration may seem too pat to be fair, but it is, I think, representative. There is, I should add, an important sense in which such images are not mere ‘fragments’; they possess, as a neoclassical critic would have said, a high degree of ‘generality’; the reader is constantly finding himself saying, ‘Yes, I recognise that’, and this generality has a significance we find the poet drawing out in later sequences. But for the moment the stress is on fragmentariness; though this, again, creates no obvious distress:
The imaginary comes to me with as much force as the real, the remembered with as much force as the immediate. The countries on the map divide and pile up like ice-floes: what is strange is that I feel no stress, no grating discomfort among the confusion, no loss; only a belief that I should not be here. (p. 37)
But, despite the absence of distress signals, there is a real weight behind the quiet statement of that final clause.
The detachment I have been noting might, for the sake of convenience, be described as the ‘personal factor’ in the poet’s difficulty in building his world into a unity. Besides that there is a constant awareness that the organising impulse is apt to be reductive. It is most revealing to illustrate this from a point at which Professor Davie, I think, under-estimates Fisher’s complexity. The poet compares Victorian with modern public architecture; he describes the former as an ‘arrogant ponderous architecture that dwarfed and terrified the people by its sheer size and functional brutality’. Of the modern style he says:
The new city is bred out of a hard will, but as it appears, it shows itself a little ingratiating, a place of arcades, passages, easy ascents, good light. The eyes twinkle, beseech and veil themselves; the full, hard mouth, the broad jaw — these are no longer made visible to all. (p. 28)
Professor Davie finds here, and in the surrounding context, a ‘nostalgia for an image of naked authority, however brutal’ (p. 164). There are grounds for such an interpretation; the poet goes on to describe a Victorian railway station so vividly that one may guess he is attracted by it. But the same can be said of his description of the modern city centre which, with its ‘straight white blocks and concrete roadways’, is a ‘clear dream just before waking’. ‘Dream’, of cause, implies illusion as well as beauty, and, in fact, both Victorian and modern styles are described with equal ambivalence as well as with equal vividness. The ambivalence is scrupulous, not confused; the poet, though far from uncritical, is impressed simply with what is there, because it is there. Fisher has (to quote from a later poem) ‘respect for neither side /Just for things happening’ (p. 61).
But it is, I think, the ‘personal factor’ that is the poet’s main concern in City and in this regard the closing pieces in the sequence indicate a point of development. As the poet walks past city houses at night he imagines the nakedness of the occupants; he fears that he might be a voyeur, but adds:
Yet I can find no sadism in the way I see them now. They are warm-fleshed, yet their shapes have the miniscule, remote morality of some mediaeval woodcut of the Expulsion: an eternally startled Adam, a permanently bemused Eve. I see them as homunculi, moving privately each in a softly lit fruit in a nocturnal tree. I can consider without scorn or envy the well-found bedrooms I pass, walnut and rose-rink, altars of tidy, dark-haired women, bare-backed, wifely. Even in these I can see order. (p. 37)
In his introductory remark to the passage from which this comes, the poet makes clear the connection between ‘sadism’ and ‘detachment’: ‘I have often felt myself to be vicious, in living so much by the eye, yet among so many people’. ‘Sadism’ may seem a strong word, yet there are elements in City answering to it:
You can lie women in your bed
With glass and mortar in their hair.
Pocket the key, and draw the curtains,
They’ll not care. (p. 23)
And the ‘scorn’ of which the poet speaks above can be seen, for example, in a passage that is clearly related to the vision of the Eve-figures:
Across the suburbs, squares of colour gleam:
Swaddled in pink and apricot,
The people are making love’. (p. 23)
The tenderness and respect with which the Eve-figures are imagined is to be seen in contrast with that; yet the tender vision is evidently precarious — the figures are ‘homunculi’, somewhat diminished. And the poet acknowledges this when he also records the feeling that he has been ‘inadvertently looking through another’s eyes and have seen what I cannot receive’.
This background determines the tone of the final poem of City, ‘The Park’; it is about fear of involvement — a fear of dirt, disease, ugliness, hostility, old age, death and corruption of the flesh, all of which are focused in the image of a belligerent old goose who chases the poet away from the park pond. The image has Fisher’s characteristic humour but it is also convincingly horrible:
Waddling fast on his diseased feet,
His orange bill thrust out,
His eyes indignant;
Waddling fast on his diseased feet,
His once-ornamental feathers
Baggy, and smeared with winter —
Waddling fast on his diseased feet,
The old goose will one day reach death; and be unfit to eat.
The poem closes with the poet ironically contemplating his own fear of the goose:
And when the goose is dead, then we
Have the chance, if we still want it,
To wander the park at leisure;
— Oh, when excuse is dead, then we
Must visit there, most diligently.
The finely caught note of sharp self-reproach, and the fleetingly tender vision that precedes it, indicate the point of development.
Against that background the title of the sequence which, in Collected Poems, follows City, has a clear significance; it is called Interiors with Various Figures. These poems are all about relationship; the effort they represent can be pointed to (remembering the poet’s earlier remark about the viciousness of the eye) by remarking that their imagery is tactile rather than visual. The opening poem, ‘Experimenting’, fairly announces the nature of the whole sequence. Its setting is, in part, one of familiar domesticity. A man and a woman are sitting in a room, engaged in desultory conversation. The woman is knitting and feeling uneasy about the man’s detached air; her unease is recorded in a phrase that recalls one we have seen earlier (‘Only a belief that I should not be here’): ‘She knows I don’t live here’. The man’s dislocation, so to speak, is presented in a bizarre way — the room, for instance, has only two walls. Understandably the woman wants more walls, if only to shut out the overwhelming uncertainties that lie ‘beyond the backyard, where indeed the earth seems to stop pretty abruptly and not restart.’ The man mocks her, feeling that she wants to impose a unity which will be mere closure or fixity; he is, however, also critical of himself, recognising that he is excessively nervous about close relationship. His nervousness is conveyed, with light comedy, by the fact that the woman has just given him an amateurish hair-cut and his hand is still ‘prickling across the butchered remains’ of his hair.
The next poem, ‘The Small Room’, also deals (with fine irony) with nervousness about intimate involvement. Here it is the man who is about to do some hair-cutting, and the woman begins to panic: ‘Why should I let him shave the hairs from me? I hardly know him.’ She fears, however, the loss of individuality more than the loss of hair; she suspects that she is being changed in ways that she is not even aware of:
He is allowed to buy the same sort of electricity as everybody else,
but his shirt, his milk-bottle, his electricity resemble one another
more than they resemble others of their kind. A transformation at
his door, at his voice, under his eye.
This will include me too; yet I hardly know him. Not well enough
to be sure which excuses would make him let me go, now, at once.
Shave the hairs from my body. Which of us thought of this thing?
One is invited to identify this woman, trapped in a small room, with the woman in ‘Experimenting’ who had wanted more walls. The intimate involvement she had wanted as a protection from uncertainty, as a means of fixity, has merely brought an increased sense of mystery. This collocation of closeness and mystery is to become a dominant interest in Fisher’s later poetry, in a way that can be briefly indicated by recalling Blake’s remark about seeing the world in a grain of sand.
The hair-cutting in those poems is characteristic of the emphasis in this sequence on touch rather than sight. At some points (in, for example, ‘The Wrestler’ and, though to a lesser degree, in ‘The Lampshade’ and ‘The Steam Crane’) the world of touch is subjected to a somewhat critical scrutiny; at other points (most notably in ‘The Foyer’) the poet presents people who are conspicuously and pathetically ‘out of touch’ with each other.
The closing poem, ‘The Billiard Table’, is also about problems of relationship but, like the close of City, it marks a point of development. It does so by introducing the fact of relationship through common identity; ‘human nature is always and everywhere the same’ — a time-honoured device for imposing unity and meaning on one’s world. In ‘The Billiard Table’ this idea is accompanied by a rejection of individual sensibility. The poem, however, seems to me not to be one of Fisher’s best; there is a resoluteness in the tone of the close which strikes me as being too insistent to be convincing. We will therefore turn immediately to ‘The Memorial Fountain’, the title poem of the next sequence, where the theme is I think pursued with more success. The poet, one of a number of people sitting in the city square at dusk, attempts to see the fountain as it is the common possession of all the onlookers:
As for the fountain:
nothing in the describing
beyond what shows
The rejection of ‘atmosphere’ (which has the same import as the rejection of individual sensibility in ‘The Billiard Table’) takes the further form of an insistence that the poet is ‘working to distinguish an event from an opinion’. Here is apparent the connection between the poet’s stress on common identity and his ‘respect for neither side/Just for things happening’, that we noted earlier. However, it is also recognised that, since there are many observers, there is more than one scene:
people on the public seats
embedded in it, darkening
intelligences of what’s visible;
private, given over, all of them —
This doubtless bristles with problems, but the one that interests the poet is easy to state; how to do justice both to common identity and to individuality. I think that he succeeds, but since the success and its conditions are even more striking in ‘At No Distance’, the longest and most important piece in Other Poems (the final group in Collected Poems), we will consider that in more detail.
The poet is in a room which overlooks a town and a lake; a woman is gathering from the floor wood-shavings from sharpened coloured pencils. The poem disjointedly gives the thoughts and images that are passing through the poet’s mind — the woman’s dress, the pencils, the lake, fragments of his past and, through the imagined figures of Krupp and Wedgewood, of the past of industrial Europe. The opening insists on the common vision:
Under that labyrinth
Of roofs they’re the same —
On rivets, blobbed
Paint-skin to be broken
Smelled on the fingernail.
It is, of course, a matter of more than explicit insistence; Fisher’s ability to generalise his images that we noted earlier is, in any case, the mark of the genuine poetic medium, but it here takes on a special relevance; the fusion of the particular with the representative is not only a feature of the poetry but also its theme. It is an important development since it gives coherence to what might seem fragmentary though vivid perceptions and also establishes the poet in community with his fellow-beholders of the world. The image of broken paint-skin is characteristic; so is,
The dress, cold
Wrinkles under the breasts,
From freckled skin beneath
Lake, rocking high-bodied
Under wood chips,
Cold boats bucking.
We shall see Fisher making further developments, but in all of them a consciousness that the poetic medium itself has a formative and directive function helps to give his poetry its particular resonance. In ‘At No Distance’ this consciousness appears as a lyrical note when the poet finds himself contemplating,
one various world
to make me dream
to make me do.
To the phrase ‘one various world’ the poet adds: ‘Or many worlds /Collide, precipitate /Making one various world /Looked at/From anywhere on it’. (I have here run together lines which in the poem are punctuated by a series of images.) Implied in this simultaneous perception of the individual and the general, which gives meaning to experience without reducing it, is the recognition that this ‘world’ is also the possession of others, who look at it from their own centre: we are all ‘central to ourselves’, and even Krupp is ‘centred like all of us’.
The opposite of this free vision is, in fact, embodied in the imagined figures of Krupp and Wedgewood, in both of whom, despite their evident differences, the impulse to organise is indistinguishable from the impulse to own. They want,
what the imagination calls
power: to own what’s longed for
and play both ways.
It is clear that in choosing these figures as representatives of some aspects of industrial civilisation, Fisher has in mind a complex of ideas familiar in modern poetry and criticism — though rarely handled, I think, with such force and originality. He has, in my view, a basic affinity with Lawrence, and I cannot agree with Professor Davie’s view that he belongs in an anti-Lawrencian tradition. I will consider this point more fully when we look at The Cut Pages, but I will glance first at Matrix.
Matrix is a sequence of ten poems continuing the theme of common identity; as its title indicates it sees things as part of one totality. There is a continual play of suggestion that everything, as is said in the fifth poem of the sequence, is ‘inseparable, interfolded’. At the same time, however, a sense of vivid particularity is always maintained, largely through metaphors which not only present with great power the objects to which they are applied but which also exploit with unusual point and consistency the fact that metaphors identify objects with each other. A typical example of this occurs in the final poem of the sequence; the poet, looking down into a rock pool, finds it hard to distinguish between the water, the floor of the pool, the pool-life and reflections from the sky:
long white and green
ravels in the blue
tensioned over the shimmering
net of fine hairs,
some grizzle, or black,
the weave on flank and belly,
whole surface on the move
tangled with trailers
of sky, and maybe lilies.
Evidently the feeling of ‘interfoldedness’ is created here, as it is through the sequence, by the play of metaphor identifying the human, and hence the artificial too, with the natural; ‘ravels’, ‘tensioned’, ‘weave on flank and belly’, ‘net’, ‘envelope’ and so on. The unobtrusiveness of the art, incidentally, is a sign of the gentleness with which Fisher is bringing out metaphorical implications which are embedded in ordinary language; this anticipates the determination to give words freedom to develop as they will which is a central factor in The Cut Pages.
The poems in Matrix are all devoted to what is apparently one particular setting: a shore-line area of rock and water where houses and gardens exist precariously though at times beautifully. At the level of the whole setting the effect of the metaphorical activity described above is both to give the area an impressive feel of actuality and to present it as a microcosm of the whole world — a rock and water planet marginally, though sufficiently, amenable to human life. The atmosphere of this presentation is occasionally tough or sombre but there is no doom-mongering. Of all this the second poem of the sequence, which is short enough to be quoted in full, can be taken as representative:
Eight or nine yards
of offered crossing:
outcrop, with pushed-up strata.
Levelled, the chasms filled,
pinnacles snagged off,
skimmed with a surfacing
that cakes into a path;
not altogether closing
over patches of rock-knuckle
and the backs of waterpipes.
This may seem bare and immediate description yet it has a great deal of suggestive power; ‘rock-knuckle’, for instance, has enough implication to draw out the metaphor in ‘backs’, in the final line, so that the waterpipes are given a suggestion of organic life. In both tendency of theme and lean strength of treatment the poem might again fairly recall the name of Wordsworth.
Fisher’s recurrent effort to let significance seem to emerge freely from the immediate rather than to impose it, is most extensively apparent in The Cut Pages, a work which is best introduced by quoting from the poet’s foreword:
The Cut Pages was written on sheets taken out of a notebook between whose covers I no longer wanted to work. The aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations; so that the work was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from.
Distrust of imposed unity is here carried to an extreme point, and it warrants, I think, further reference to Lawrence. As I understand it Professor Davie wishes to place Fisher in the ‘school of Hardy’ and to contrast that with the ‘school of Lawrence’; that is a crude way of putting what Professor Davie argues subtly but I think that it fairly indicates his intention. That Fisher however is to be aligned with Lawrence can be argued by appealing to one of the poems that Professor Davie himself quotes while reminding his readers of some key Lawrencian attitudes — ‘The Revolutionary’. The central lines of the poem are,
To me, the earth rolls ponderously, superbly,
Coming my way without forethought or afterthought.
This, the culmination of course of an attack on those who would impose rigid structures upon their experience, could be taken as a commentary on two of the main features of The Cut Pages: the second line is in the spirit of Fisher’s foreward, quoted above, while the first line has that blend of full immediate perception with a pervasive feeling of cosmic mystery that is the essential feature of Fisher’s work in the poem itself. The following, for instance, is typical:
Miraculous urine, streaming among the ice. The boot, the snaky hulls against the murk. Deep tanned brown of the swept pavement between the snowfields. Earth solid with black fire, sky with grey fire. (p. 42)
The reference to Lawrence might be developed by referring to Dr. Leavis; Fisher is exploiting, to an extreme degree, what Dr. Leavis likes to call the ‘exploratory-creative’ potential of language. Dr. Leavis, it will be recalled, often employs that phrase, as for example in the essay ‘Tragedy and the “Medium”’, when he is intent on stressing the limitations of conscious will and intellect; and this has an obvious relevance to Fisher’s programme, since his technique aims at avoiding the willed rigidities earlier embodied in Krupp and Wedgewood — representatives of what Dr. Leavis, of course, coining an appropriately ugly name, calls the ‘technologico-Benthamite ethos’.
Such are the bearings of the technique; a characteristic example of it is the following, which occurs at a halt in the flow of images that constitutes the poem:
It needs nothing. It can have what it likes
Pellets grow, and grow a fine fur
Giant bricks. Good. Never mind how they got there
The chase. The chase! Print
Pastoral, kneedeep in pastoral, juicy green. Loads of marble,
Loads of care
Great square wings in which romantic visions of a softened city
pass in coloured openings between black framings. Growing
by pushing outwards into a stretched pallor; and sending itself
away. (p. 52)
In many cases one can at least guess how things get there; pellets possibly become rabbit-dung, which can develop mould, and this leads to bricks since they too often have a mould-like fur. ‘Chase’ refers to the swift pursuit of one image by another, and this, by an obvious association, brings in the pastoral print.
As is clear in those lines, a spirit of free play is essential to the enterprise and it would clearly be pointless to seek too much pattern in The Cut Pages. Yet the sequence is not aimless; it has clarity of point and urgency of theme. Its theme and point, as will be evident from what has already been said, are the necessity for resisting reductive attitudes to experience. The success of the programme is witnessed by the wonderful richness, in both vividness and variety, of the world that the poem creates. As always, Fisher’s images have great solidity:
Lovable old clown face. The red nose, the spots of colour on the cheeks. That pouchy mouth with camel-lips and teeth, wet with spittle. The big eyeballs are pink with blood-vessels. A succulent smile of resignation, too much for a smile. (p. 49)
And the feelings which accompany the free development of the imagery have a range and subtlety that will have been suggested by the brief passages I have already quoted. To illustrate this fully would take up too much space, but I would like to pause over the following, since it also serves to make a further point:
Traces. So much isn’t the railroad, so little is. We dot by traces
Breathe again, we dot so small
Stepping-stairs, leading round, leading to another platform with
its rail from which we
Free our spread
How far through you will it come, sweet red,
sweet stream of blue
River of artifice
Inhuman curvatures. (p. 26)
The way in which this moves up to a moment of fine lyricism and through to a rather bleak irony, without straining the general texture of the rhythm and diction, seems to me to be remarkable. The further point arising from it is the poet’s recognition that no matter how much he gives himself up to a spirit of free play he cannot avoid ‘artifice’ because language itself is artificial. He cannot really break away from the railroad, the track of his words and thoughts, and reach the so much that isn’t the railroad, the mystery that surrounds his arbitrary and restricted course. With that example and comment we return, in fact, to a point made earlier: the characteristic movement of The Cut Pages is from minutely registered fragments of actuality to a sense of cosmic mystery, and the deepest significance of the fragments is felt to reside in this movement. The poem’s impulse, that is, is essentially religious. The movement, appropriately, is apparent in the closing lines of the poem:
Speed of the dark, immense speed of the dark. Of the weight
of the dark.
One corner was flattened into the mount, the other bent out
and standing a few millimetres proud.
The violent clash between the two images here generates an ironic contemplation of the inadequacy of human perception; at its most minutely careful it is like a scrutiny of a badly-mounted photograph. Yet the irony is by no means desperate; the perceptual world given in the poem remains richly satisfying. The condition of this richness is ‘trust’, a factor to which I referred when discussing City. What ‘trust’ means, in The Cut Pages, might be illustrated by the following lines, which seem to me to be central to the poem:
There’s no choice. There’s everything, but no way of choosing.
Nothing comes away. You come away, pulling things with you.
No choice for you, no choice for them
But seen very close, so close that to move a fraction would give
the sensation that the head’s trapped, the breath in danger, it’s a
tent. The light is given, on trust. The breath is given, on trust. (p. 46)
Thought, which organises, necessarily involves abstraction, distortion and detachment (‘pulling away’). The alternative, presented through the direct simplicity of the language with great force, has a traditional familiarity — a willingly submissive contemplation. And the necessity for trust, of course, is that which is implied by any act of voluntary submission.
And that seems a convenient point at which to end my outline. I have sketched Fisher’s course, in his various attempts to give sufficient yet unrestrictive meaning to his perceptions of the world, with reference to names (Wordsworth, Blake, Lawrence, Leavis) which have a familiar import; in a tentative essay of this kind I think the more familiar the points of reference the better. I need hardly add that I sympathise with what appear to me to be Fisher’s chief interests and insistences. His work is, I think, a notable and original addition to the long series of honourable engagements that English writers have had with the problems created for the human mind by the march of science.
Roy Fisher’s poetry is published by Fulcrum Press.
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