Peter Carpenter

Bernard Spencer: Complete Poetry, edited by Peter Robinson, Bloodaxe Books, 384pp, £15 (paperback)

In 1974, in an introduction to Ben Jonson’s poetry, Thom Gunn wrote: ‘all poetry is occasional: whether the occasion is an external event like a birthday or a declaration of war, whether it is an occasion of the imagination, or whether it is in some sort a combination of the two.’ Gunn’s words ring true during a reading of Peter Robinson’s masterful new assemblage of Bernard Spencer’s writings (Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose) that spans a period from 1929 up to the year of Spencer’s death, 1963. Robinson’s meticulous and animating introduction, notes and gathering of works (lectures, notebooks, interviews, translations) around the ‘complete’ poems transform Spencer from the ninety-six pages of Alan Ross’s 1965 London Magazine edition and the one hundred and forty-eight pages of Roger Bowen’s OUP edition of 1981 to a substantial three hundred and eighty-four pages all told in this 2011 edition. One hopes that such labour, such a gathering of evidence, will lead to a repositioning of Spencer in the critical consciousness, from a poet known to few and preserved only by anthologists and the afterlives of a few of the more famous poems (such as ‘A Thousand Killed’ and ‘Boat Poem’) – nudging forward the possibility of ‘Auden, MacNeice and Spencer’, as envisaged by Christopher Reid.

It is Spencer’s diffidence (his ‘solitary indifference to applause’, as Keats put it) and the doubts behind it, as Robinson explores in his introduction, that in part make his work so attractive. It informs his craft and subject matter: Lawrence Durrell noted Spencer’s special hidden ‘vantage point’ of observation, a semi-detachment that provides an austerity and reserve to the tones of many poems, especially the early work. Here, T. S. Eliot’s ‘impersonality’, a ‘reserved, dry and ironical’ approach, is apparent in Spencer’s inroads into the ‘loneliness and boredom’ that ‘nourish’ poetry, as Spencer acknowledges in the University of Madrid Lecture from 1962. Take Spencer’s mysterious and beautiful ‘The Hand’ (published first in 1935): all the more intriguing and powerful for its apparent coolness, finding a way out of the gothic frighteners of Keats’ late poem (‘This living hand, now warm and capable/Of earnest grasping’) towards the more quizzical tones of The Movement: ‘The human hand lying on my hand…/Wore its print of personal lines/Took breath as lungs and leaves and/Tasted in the skin our sun.’ Ways out of Spencer’s writing are various when Gunn, Davie and Larkin are considered; put that poem next to Larkin’s ‘Skin’ from 1954 (‘You must learn your lines’).

This is not to imply a lack of adventure or range: Spencer is revealed here as a poet of unfussy daring and impulse, writing poems on the backs of envelopes, positioning near-toppling long lines next to short sharp lines, using startling juxtapositions in imagery, often in the realisation of the power of ephemera, life’s cherished moments, as they flicker in and out of time. (Read his great poem ’On The Road’ where the detail and hopes for love in life are held in time’s river, ‘of so profound a current, it at once/both flowed and stayed’.) A concomitant feature of Spencer’s writing is the respect he affords to ‘ordinary’ as well as extraordinary ‘events’. He admires Hardy ‘very, very especially’ for the ‘down-to-earth-ness of his language and observation’ (interview with Peter Orr); he prefers the talk of ‘ordinary’ people to the ‘literary man’, because ‘they are my subject-matter’. Thus the commuter with ‘trousers/crumpled by rain’ in ‘Train to Work’ or ‘Clemente’, the dead demon waiter, ‘who wangles you the cruel drinks’ (lovely that) are ‘celebrated’ with a comparable care to more obvious ‘external’ events and subject matter, such as the air raids and enemy prisoners from 1942 in ‘Base Town’: ‘Prisoners/Bearded and filthy, had bones, eyes and hair/Like other men in need.’ Here, the reader might miss first time round the subtle punning on ‘other’: it is indicative of Spencer’s sensibility and his quiet technical mastery: the men (up to now ‘them’) are simultaneously ‘different’, from the ‘other’ side, and ‘just like others, any other’ men. Spencer is too good a poet to take sides: he does not write ‘like us’. This is not just a one-off in his work: Spencer seeks ‘oneness’, shared ground, but fends off cosying up in grand or sentimental gestures of ‘brotherhood’ or easy partisanship. He is not one for ‘joining in’; he travelled alone. Spencer’s early work (the first of his two collections, Aegean Islands and Other Poems, 1946) was written in an age that demanded such agility: artists and writers were under pressure to take sides, to go public with their political sympathies, to take a stand, to be ‘committed’ to a cause. In the famous letter of June 1937 ‘To the Writers and Poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales’, decrying the murder and destruction wrought by Fascism in Italy and the ‘murder’ of Durango and Guernica, the question is put squarely: ‘Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the people of Republican Spain?/Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?/For it is impossible any longer to take no side.’ (It reminds this reader of Louis MacNeice in Modern Poetry when he talks of the strategies involved in ‘steering a middle ground between pure entertainment, “escape poetry”, and propaganda’.) Spencer is a tremendous writer (about war, but also about the human drama in any old situation) for some of the reasons he celebrates in the work of Keith Douglas: ‘his economical use of language for statement … the surprise and force of his images … and the maturity of the pity.’

Let us go back to that ‘gentle and put upon’ commuter in ‘Train to Work’ (first published in 1963): ‘endearing stranger,/…like other men who come to mind,/is condemned to sure death, he sits/(with his mackintosh belt twisted),/poetry roaring from him like a furnace.’ A mature pity, surprise, economy. The twists include the unexpected force and turn in the last image (perhaps a prompt for Larkin and the ‘rage’ of ‘furnace fear’ in ‘Aubade’?), the chiming of ‘furnace’ with ‘sure death’, the ambiguity of ‘from’ (‘exuding from’ or detected via the expectations of the observer?). It is useful to put this next to this interview extract: ‘I rather like what a Greek poet said (it was Seferis) that you meet poems like people and certain kinds of poems in different places. A certain kind you may run into in a railway station, you can expect them there, and other kinds in, shall we say, the bathroom.’ (Looking back to ‘Base Town’ we note ‘like other men who come to mind’.) Peter Robinson talks brilliantly of the significance of luck, the accidental (‘you may run into’) in relation to pattern, to Spencer’s ‘desire to find a form for his experience’: ‘His repeated adoption of the word “twist” implies a retrospective sense of links between things more articulated than their accidental proximity, only caught in a disturbed relation not desired or expected, and one which often gravitates towards death’. (Behind this also, Eliot’s model of the poet’s mind ‘constantly amalgamating disparate experience’, the experience ‘chaotic, irregular, fragmentary’ to form ‘new wholes’.)

Such an audacious ending (arising from the contemplation of the ‘gentle and put upon’ subject) is indicative of a major concern in Spencer’s writing: the co-existence in the world of the wild, the terrible, the destructive and the tamed, the ‘civilised’, the socialised. How do passions, love and loss, ‘wild with all regret’, rub along next to the cold shoulders and hard surfaces of bureaucracy, humdrum preoccupations? (For this, put ‘The Administrator’ next to ‘The Leopards’.) Surprising juxtapositions, imagist in nature, can conjure up threat, dreamscapes and wild humour, whilst maintaining a ‘respect for the object’, as in poems such as ‘Castanets’( ‘gunshot through a veil,/blow the night suddenly mad with their pelting hail’) or ‘Table Tennis’ (‘Pit-ponies, sex-fiends, gypsies’ bears have found/mercy, I hope, in sleep’). In ‘Ideas on Poetry’ (1942) he states: ‘more sophisticated poetry, if it is to have any force, has also to be rooted in the uncivilised layers of the mind, where what is ugly and beautiful can both be contemplated and do not exclude each other.’

Towards the end of his introductory essay, Peter Robinson makes an important and valid retrospective claim: ‘What might have appeared to Spencer’s contemporaries as a marginality of subject and focus in his poems can now be seen as a European poetry in English, and with its own distinctly English sensibility’. It might also be claimed that his central subject, like earlier English poets in European contexts, such as Shelley, is liberty – the freedoms that are made possible by a guardianship of language. Shelley’s words from his Defence of Poetry (1821) also ring true for this reader when reading Spencer: ‘Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…’ Spencer’s output seems truthful in a deep sense: there is not a poem here that seems to have a palpable design upon us, or that has proceeded from

some external or internal ‘determination of the will’. This is not to say that his poetry or poetics is apolitical. In February 1962 (a Cold War context), Spencer answered some questions put by Alan Ross to a number of writers and makes clear his abhorrence of the doctrinaire, the imposed view from above: ‘I think the principal issue of our time is the survival of the loving, feeling individual against the political-social spook – so every good poem is eventually taking sides’. He is not a poet of easy ‘commitment’, rather one truthful to the detail of experience, placing as Martin Dodsworth puts it, ‘his rejected answers, as it were, side by side’. Spencer does not need the big occasion or centre stage for great poetry; indeed many of the poems collected here have the impact of glancing blows, triggered by tiny moments of observation, fleeting experiences, glances from a window, jottings, figures hovering in the background. Thus the occasions of poetry for Spencer are various, as he hilariously puts it as part of one review: ‘Of course there is nothing wrong in everyday things as subjects for poetry; a poet may write about cheese if it excites him sufficiently and in the right way’. However, it is what Spencer admires in Constantine Trypanis that, for this reader, come closest to capturing his own qualities: ‘An irony and a tenderness, all held in a certain formality, almost reserve, of manner … an intense awareness of … landscape … and of man’s life set against the passing of history…’. Peter Robinson is to be congratulated for bringing this great writer back to our attention.

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