Terry Kelly Night, David Harsent, Faber and Faber, 112pp, £9.99 (paperback)
David Harsent is the quintessential poet’s poet. An early associate of the Review and its charismatic and famously severe editor, Ian Hamilton, Harsent’s earliest poems bore the minimalist trademarks of the magazine’s house style, being short, intense and mostly eschewing narrative structure for lyrical intensity. But as early as his first pamphlet, Tonight’s Lover, published by the Review in 1968, there were signs that Harsent was prepared to allow his anguished lyrics some amplitude, even delivering a poem like ‘The Woman and the Roses’ over two pages, its three-part structure representing the shape of things to come. In his first full collection, A Violent Country (1969), Harsent still carried the Review’s poetic stigmata in short, compacted lyrics often exploring in extremis states of mind. But even the volume’s opening poem, ‘Legendary’, hinted at a more primitive, Hughesian violence unusual among the mostly domestic milieu of work allied to the ‘School of Hamilton,’ which included fellow Review poets Hugo Williams and Michael Fried (later collectively satirised by Clive James as ‘Hugo Harsfried’):
It was a violent country:
explosions and raw sunsets,
inexplicable cries, glistening scraps
of butchered animals
caught in the forks of trees.
Born in Devon in 1942, Harsent came from a non-literary, working- class background. As he explained in a Faber podcast in late 2010, he first encountered poetry while recuperating from a childhood accident, revealing: ‘It was the Border Ballads that turned me inside out.’ After receiving a Gregory Award and winning first prize in the Guinness competition at the 1967 Cheltenham Festival, his work started to come to the attention of his future good friend, Ian Hamilton. (Harsent had earlier been collecting rejection slips from the Review and the TLS, without realising Hamilton was poetry editor for both journals.) The earliest work charted the intense and often fractured nexus of man-woman relations, as in ‘Retreat,’ from his second collection, After Dark (1973):
It seemed that we would never intercept each other
in that round of flawless summer nights.
The personae in Harsent’s first books seem to populate a world whose default setting is isolation, one often imbued with a barely controlled sense of violence or emotional extremity; as Roger Garfitt described the earliest work in the London Magazine (February/March 1974), ‘The apparently extreme themes, suicide, withdrawal or madness, represented not so much illusions of the disordered mind as phases of the normal mind taken to the edge’. But while Harsent has never been afraid to dissect what an Elvis Costello song title calls the ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror’ of inter-personal relationships, the icy detachment and clarity of the poetry – what Garfitt usefully called ‘a sensibility of quite arctic rigour’ – prevent the work sinking into a psychological or emotional morass.
Each new collection from Harsent seems to represent another poetic development from his earliest, minimalist style. Dreams of the Dead (1977) was another step towards greater narrative flexibility, with external realities fruitfully impacting on inner states of bruised, thin-skinned consciousness in the title sequence, as well as ‘Truce’ and ‘Moments in the Lifetime of Milady’. This emotional underworld often contains priapic elements, which found full expression in Harsent’s subsequent volume, Mister Punch (1984). In many ways a breakthrough collection, the book’s vibrant and propulsive language also allowed for complex fictional resonances in Harsent’s vivid recreation of the traditional puppet show’s manic anti-hero. By turns victim and aggressor, Punch is also both passive observer and sexual predator:
Love is his energy and his trap,
spurring the thug beneath the skin…
A slippery poetic presence, suggesting a shaman or shape-shifting trickster, Punch possesses an oblique, fractured narrative voice, perhaps owing something to the Henry persona in John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, while also evoking elements of Ted Hughes’s Crow. Punch’s amoral adventures, which John Mole in Encounter classified as a ‘remorseless sequence of libidinous grand-guignol’, often explore unchecked erotic desire, as he watches ‘Girls in the Luxembourg Gardens, girls on the boulevard./The appalling tyranny of unfoxed loveliness’. Like much of Harsent, Mister Punch foreshadows future poetic narratives, with the poem ‘Bonnard: Breakfast’ pointing towards the title sequence in his 2002 collection Marriage, which explored the relationship between the artist and his wife and muse, Marthe de Meligny. (Likewise, three Punch poems in Dreams of the Dead presage the later collection’s title sequence.) While Harsent’s poetic cross-referencing is not nearly as architectural as Muldoon’s, the drift of his work has been increasingly towards the complex resonances of fiction.
The raw material of war and its human consequences would again see Harsent extending his narrative range in first News from the Front (1993) and the Forward Prize-winning collection Legion (2005), in which the horrific realities of the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s inspired the fictional warzone of the title sequence. Ironically, it was Harsent’s old poetic mentor and champion of lyrical intensity, Ian Hamilton, who suggested he lengthen his poetic line after reading News from the Front. This in turn led to A Bird’s Idea of Flight (1998), a literally death-obsessed volume which puzzled some critics, but which Helen Dunmore, writing in the Observer, called ‘a very ambitious piece of work, bold in language, rich in reference and caustic wit’, seeing the book-length sequence as turning on its own dark axis.
Harsent’s poetic mastery is amply displayed in his latest and tenth volume, Night, the Poetry Book Society’s Choice for Spring 2011. The collection’s title is instructive, the poet creating fictive sparks by dovetailing the outer darkness of the natural world with the often nightmare-plagued landscape of the psyche. An experienced librettist in his collaborations with composer Harrison Birtwistle, Harsent marshals a lifetime of technical skills – from adapted terza rima to full, slant and internal rhyme, septets, the ballad and intuitively handled thematic pick- ups – as he probes the nature of loss, the painful consolations of memory and the potent darkness to be found in even the most conventional-looking gardens. In fact, it will be impossible to consider our neatly tended green spaces as anything other than repositories of hidden terrors after reading the book’s opening sequence, in which the reader is advised ‘you might prefer/to steer clear of the hut at the garden’s end, though more/seem drawn to it, the litter, the rat-run under the floor,/the bat in the rafters…’ (‘The Garden in Fading Light’).
A poet with an avowed distaste for the ‘confessional’ tendency in verse, Harsent’s disturbing dreamscapes are purely fictional, but their experiential power allows for private experience to be turned into communal imaginative currency. As in Thom Gunn’s ‘Touch’, Harsent’s poems allow access to that ‘dark/wide realm where we/walk with everyone’. And the poems are often driven by the propulsive force of Harsent’s idiomatic language, as in the opening poem, the tenebrous wheel of fortune meditation, ‘Rota Fortunae’: ‘death now cast/as a friend in need, death as the thin/end of the wedge, is the fuddle of death, the way death sidles in/ with a nod and a cough, is death self-styled,/is the niff, the nub, the rub of death, is death at a pinch,/death in a poke, death as a bastard child…’ As Harsent explained in the aforementioned Faber podcast, ‘all these dark garden poems got released’ after the poet and his wife decided to have a chaotic part of their garden in London – including children’s toys and a paddling pool lost in an untidy mess of greenery – tidied up. This human ordering of unchecked, overly-civilised nature seemed to trigger a suite of garden poems, exploring everything from an acute realisation of the ‘terra incognita’ of human frailty in ‘A View of the House from the Back of the Garden’ to the nocturnal slattern-siren of ‘The Garden Goddess’ (‘with her Tesco bags and a fifth of gin in her pocket’), to the symbolic and unsettling image of ‘white-eyed fish’ in a garden pond, portending the blanking-out of life itself.
But while the overriding tone of Night is dark, the collection’s imaginative range, sheer narrative drive and abundant formal pleasures raise the book to another level. As the poet George Szirtes said in a recent blog entry about Night, ‘it is not in fact the darkness but the brightness that makes his poetry as valuable as it is. By brightness I mean the sheer pleasure in sound and association. It is almost as if the narrative were darkness, but the texture was constantly throwing off light… The narrative imagination says: this is what turns me on (sex, death, violence, nightmares, drift, guilt), then language dances the turn-on into a multi-dimensional life…’ Harsent quotes approvingly Paul Verlaine’s dictum – ‘Music before all else’ – in his Faber interview and it is the sophisticated musicality of his verse which outshines its inherent thematic gloom. ‘Elsewhere’, which closes the book, is a dazzling, vertiginous 749-line quest-poem, and arguably Harsent’s most considerable achievement to date. Encapsulating the central message of Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’ – the poem’s strung-out protagonist takes his own inner darkness on the road, his nightmarish, wanderer-like journeying with a bag of memories proving a fitting finale to one of the most haunting poetry collections of recent years.