Complete Poems, Muriel Spark, Carcanet, 2015, afterword by Michael Schmidt, 133pp, £14.99 (paperback)

Complete Poems, R.F. Langley, Carcanet, 2015, edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod, 180pp, £12.99 (paperback)

Had she written only Complete Poems (and knowing her novels as we do), it would be tempting to judge Muriel Spark (1918 – 2006) a light, even a minor writer. She found writing novels far easier than writing poetry but was suspicious of such facility. ‘My outlook on life and my perceptions of events are those of a poet,’ she claimed defensively, in the Foreword to the 2004 edition of Complete Poems. She never gave up her view of herself as a poet through decades of presenting that self more famously in prose.

And there are striking effects in this collection, mainly due to a tension between the departing surreal romanticism of Forties’ poets such as Dylan Thomas and the coming social realism of Philip Larkin’s Movement. A tone of duality, a voice both of the surreal and the super-real, or perhaps of the supernatural and of wit, electrify her best poems. Here are the first two stanzas of ‘Elementary’:

Night, the wet, the onyx-faced

Over the street was shining where

I saw an object all displaced

In black water and black air.

Was it myself? If so I found

An odd capacity for vision.

Capacity, I understand

Is limited by fixed precision

Something uncanny about poetry summoned Spark as did the supernatural aspects of Catholicism. She converted in 1954, around the same time as Edith Sitwell. Sitwell and Spark also shared a robust attitude to the poetic. It’s easy to imagine Spark saying, as Sitwell did, that The Boy on the Burning Deck was a fool or why didn’t he get off it? Spark studied the knowable down-to earth side of poetry and practiced a variety of forms, sonnet, ballad, rondel, villanelle, free verse. They give a pace to this book that feels like restlessness, reflected in her continual use of questions to structure poems, as here in ‘Is This the Place?’:

But really, is it the same place, that

Cosy old-fashioned bistrot we used to eat in

Years ago, so many years, one forgets

How many.


But surely it was right here. And surely

There’s something about the shape. And yet

They’ve changed it completely, haven’t they?

Or have they? This could be somewhere different.

Her questioning works best when she is brisk and detached, an attitude nailed down by rhyme in ‘Against the Transcendentalists’:

And so I reserve

The right not to try to

Fulfil the wilderness or fly to

Empyreal vacuity with an eye to

Publication, for what am I to

Byzantium or Byzantium

To me? I live in Kensington

And walk about, and work in Kensington

The question is rhetorical here, and further questions, ‘Who is Everyman… What is Truth true of?’, summon up Hamlet’s self-inflating counsellor, Polonius, and tighten Spark’s grip on wit. When existential nonsense (and Spark is an excellent nonsense poet) comes at her, two feet firmly on the ground is her best defence.

Yet perhaps the major poem in this collection is an eighteen-pager of the surreal kind. ‘The Ballad of the Fanfarlo’ resembles an exploded horror lm script set in a hospital. Steeped in symbolism, it echoes T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as well as borrowing from Baudelaire’s novella, Fanfarlo:

Samuel Cramer laid his head down,

And he was locked in an anaesthetic sleep.

The ether-bowl stood over him

And the keen knife ripped him up.


And first they found his white bone,

And next his brown marrow,

And when they found his feverish heart

They said, ‘He is No Man that we know’.

Apart from eight new poems, a set of mixed quality, this Complete Poems is the same as the Complete Poems published in 2004, with the ordering that Sparks herself approved, not chronological but so lightly thematic that, on occasion, the thread reads simply like a word being echoed in adjacent poems. I would prefer to have them chronologically arranged, to glimpse the personal development behind the poems. But Muriel Spark’s personality never changed and it breaks through the resistible narrators she constructs to give us irresistible asides, such as this in ‘That Bad Cold’;

Nobody asked him to come. (Yes,

He is masculine, but otherwise

Don’t try to parse the situation.)

With her first forty years dominated by poetry, winning prizes as a school-girl, editing Poetry Review 1947-1949 and getting the sack, prose (and certainly fame) must have come as a relief. She carried on writing poetry on the side though, perhaps enjoying wriggling free of fame to be a more or less failed poet.

R. F. Langley (1938 – 2011) is a poet of observation of the natural world. More interestingly, many poems in Complete Poems are built of all the bits he can salvage of an insight. Nature is only one such bit. Other rich material pre-exists in the poet’s mind and glitters in the wordscape. Hence editor Jeremy Noel-Tod’s inspired inclusion of short bibliographies to indicate what Langley was reading during a poem’s gestation. ‘Achilles’, for example, starts with painterliness:

One is seldom directed by way of

an indigo gate. A life is plunged in

colours, saturations, shades, tints, hues. One

screws one’s eyes up.

In fabulous illustration of his point, Langley throws into the mix Achilles’ murder of Penthesileia, a seventeenth-century gentlewoman Elizabeth Havers, the rock-breaking power of a tree, Newton and his prism and ends with a controlled formal breakdown describing a wading heron.

In ‘My Moth: My Song’, nature is overwhelmed by the poet’s mind:

It goes on. Hawk moths stammer in front of

the red valerian. These words, floated

in the silence, by myself, hover close

to my thoughts. The thoughts themselves almost were

words. I think they were. I think they did. How

close is close? What colour were the moths?

A ghostly mentor hovers here in front of the reader. Langley’s teacherliness, developed over a lifetime in secondary schools, shows in countless mentions of classroom practices, raising hands, being late, ticking answers.

His studiousness, the art of paying attention, paid off in his great later poems though some early (and still brilliant) poems, such as ‘The Ecstasy Inventories’, show signs of the discipline needed to express moments in human time with all their physical and mental activity:

              Take now and make a then.

A room. A roomy workshop. Elderflowers.

Forget the scent. Here is a carpenter,

singing. It is a hymn. Never mind

the scent, forget the difficult


This is a picture of poet as builder, jettisoning main verbs, making one part of speech do the work of another, using punctuation to cement together broken parts of lines and parts of sentences. And Langley could skim the plaster perfectly:

            but command is taken now by those tiny

expert birds who perch, and glow, and whizz

and pick the pepper out of the closing air.

– ‘Juan Fernandez’

There are many such gorgeous sound patterns, echoing Gerard Manley Hopkins, shaping typically long stanzas with assonance and alliteration. That’s exactly so in the last poem in the book, ‘To a Nightingale’, post-humously awarded the Forward prize. It achieves a loss of narrator at the same time as the narrator openly admits his presence:

No business of mine. Mites which

ramble. Caterpillars which

curl up as question marks. Then

one note, five times, louder each

time, followed, after a fraught

pause, by a soft cuckle of

wet pebbles, which I could call

a glottal rattle. I am


Note the word ‘which’. The lines pattern its use to indicate that the poet’s voice could deliver a nightingale’s song because song is his business more than, say, rambling and curling up. This giant metaphor is hidden in simple narrative: ‘a glottal rattle. I am’. He is, indeed. I recommend you read R.F. Langley’s magnificent poems, and his prose journals too, sparingly and for the rest of your life, as you might read a book of meditations.

By Claire Crowther

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