Alan Morrison on
Who are the English?
Selected Poems 1935-81
(Smokestack Books, 2014)
Introduced by Anne Cranny-Francis
- Part 3 -
The following three verses have again a kind of strangled rhapsodic quality to them reminiscent, to my mind, a little more of the Victorian take on Romanticism, as in the verses of William Morris, and less so authentic Romanticism:
Call down the hawks of the sun with the tinkling of tears
call up the sea’s bubble-monsters with flowerbells of dew
wear down the mountain-boulders with tumbling of lovers.
All that is easy to the softening of closed hearts.
To whom shall I sing then, who come with a song of pity?
To whom I shall I sing then, who come with a song of glory?
A song that should waken a tumult of answering wings
come with a snarl of trumpets and lifted laughters
come with a clap of the morning-stars for its echo.
Where are the voices? where is that pride of high musicks?
where are the English voices? the eagles of tempest?
where are the trumpets lusty against the liars?
I have no heart to call in the darkening silence…
And so on. This strange medley of late Romantic/ high Victorian/ faintly archaic (i.e. ‘musicks’)/ sing-song verse along with more modernistic influences (although those are not obvious in the above excerpt) remind me again of Joseph Macleod’s oeuvre –though the latter Scots modernist was significantly more avant-garde in his style than Lindsay. But Lindsay is a sufficiently imaginative and skilled poet as to get away with such flourishing Victoriana, as the next stanza amply demonstrates:
Yet if one man stands at bay against all the darkness
there shall be stars, a swarm of unquenchable stars.
If one man stands at bay against all the silence
there shall be voices O bladed voices unsheathed.
I am standing at bay against silence of death and the darkness.
I bring you a song of the Greeks on the hills of hunger.
I bring you a song of the Greeks in the perilous passes
a song of pity, a stubborn song of glory.
Flash out, courageous sword on the crag of the day.
Cry out, voices of children, the endless pang.
This poem is heaped with images and aphorisms, such as the alliteratively resonant: ‘The moan of the Greek children grows round your moated homes’. Again there is a conscious lapse into archaism: ‘The Greek women are ravisht each night in the bed of your love’. There is also a smattering of Christian imagery, though from a distinctly humanistic/purely symbolic perspective: ‘At the foot of your garden hangs the crucified man/ who trusted you, the Greek, brave heart the most betrayed’.
This is one of Lindsay’s more lyrically confident poems, as the following passage furnishes:
…the rasping fall of the stars
and earth with many fangs. The Germans came
and we fought back. O land of the gnarled olive
against the golden dust and the winedark seas
we fought, we had no hope of victory then
we fought. Remember Forty-One. Strain back
behind the jangling lies, the mists of murder.
The image ‘winedark sea’ is a fairly perennial one dating back to Ancient Greek and Roman poetics, and, as some academics have argued in times past, actually meant fairly literally in terms of maritime description since, allegedly, the ancients’ ocular facilities were apparently more limited and less nuanced in terms of colour-perception, and so it’s sometimes been assumed they actually perceived the sea as similar in colour to red wine. This is slightly hard to swallow, admittedly, but it’s a quirk of anthropological scholarship which is always worth citing for curiosity value.
But these ventriloquised appeals to the English seem to fall on deaf ears, to the tintinnabulations of dusky symbolisms:
There as we stood in the trust of our first rejoicing
we were taken and thrust in the barbedwire sties and the cells
set on the desolate islands of grinding light
lashed and ravished in the police-stations
shot in the thickets, shot in the quayside alleys.
Then the poem takes on an angrier, rhetorically accusatory tone:
The Fascists were back in the Ministries, pacing the carpets
the Fascists were back in the clanking courts of the law
behind the grilles of the bank and the rings of cigar smoke
in the grand hotels and the dancing, the cocktail bars,
and all of their screechbright women with nylon flesh
Note here the more daring portmanteau ‘screechbright’ and brilliantly alliterative first line. The charge of wilful ignorance to the signs of preparation for occupation of Greece by the Germans gather ever thicker:
whose are the men that sail to the sad Peiraeus?
whose are the generals and economic advisors
chatting in Athens, plotting in Salonika?
These accusations are punctuated by the prayer-like refrain: ‘Answer, people of England, the voice of our dead’. Then Lindsay moves on in time to the post-war Greek political implosion and its own subsequent Civil War:
What sent the world wrangling in wrongs and rankling
when the war ended and all of us hoped to be happy?
The murder seething in the pit of Greece
the treachery splitting Greece with fears and famines
the breaking of faith. That broke the hopes of all.
Lindsay then makes a statement of European commonality and how the beating heart of Western democracy is rooted in the most ancient democracy on earth, and the wellbeing of Greek democracy therefore a prerequisite to any aspirations for Continental peace and prosperity:
Greece is the open sore of imperialist evil.
When the Greeks are free, all over Europe again
the unity of the peoples will be possible.
This is, indeed, a premise just as important and resonant today, seventy-odd years on, when bankrupt Greece is under the yoke of the Troika and effectively reduced to a democratically eviscerated, debt-bonded client-state of the IMF and EU.
Lindsay then repeats an earlier trope: ‘The moan of the Greek children grows round your moated homes/ The Greek women are ravisht each night in the bed of your love./ At the foot of your garden…’ etc. The final verse has a prayer-like desperation about it and is demonstrably composed on the pulse of the moment it speaks about, as if to somehow will a swift and satisfactory solution to the contemporaneous Greek crisis:
We bring you a song of the Greeks on the hills of hell.
We bring you a song of the Greeks in the perilous passes
a song of pity, a stubborn song of glory.
Flash out, courageous sword on the crag of the day.
When Greece is free, the shadow will pass away.
Peace will be in our hands. Peace will be strong.
O open your hearts to the hands of our beating song.
Let Greece be free again. Let Greece be free.
This part of the poem, its close, is more obviously written ‘for the moment’, as so to speak, than necessarily for the posterity of full poetic satisfaction, as opposed to much of the poem before it; but in many ways it makes the whole feel more urgent and powerful, and, indeed, this poem, sadly, retains its sense of now-ness in the wake of the modern day fiscal subjugation of Greece. Potent stuff.
‘Buffalo Stadium, Paris, 1948 – to Paul Eluard’, is a rapturous expression of sempiternal immanence, commonality and psychical unity through the prism of the dedicatee’s poems which demonstrably Lindsay adores; this is Paris, Texas, as opposed to the city of eternal romance with its special bouquet. The style of this poem is more free verse than any poem we’ve encountered in Lindsay’s chronological collection thus far; the poem is, appropriately, given its tone, almost one breathless sentence (almost stream-of-consciousness in structure):
If all the notes of the birds
that have shaken the crystal bough
were gathered inside one silence
and rose in a single rapture
this day in Paris
this day everywhere
I see men coming from the dust of distance
winding about the sides of toppling mountains
and past their dearths and deaths, their daze of danger
they look towards this day
I see young lovers stooping from last night
under the mornings arch with secret laughters
to face the world without the need of veils
and move within this day
I see the peoples mated with the harvest
awakening from the night of stolen labour
to claim their birthright at the sun’s tribunals
and move within this day
We note Lindsay’s use of a prayer-like refrain again in ‘and move within this day’. This is more emphatically than most of Lindsay’s poems, one of the embodiment of the moment, of the ‘concrete universal’, in tone, theme and technique. It is, if you like, an expression of pure poetic communism:
This day in Paris
this day everywhere
catching in its handclasp
all days that have been, all days that are yet to be
We look in each other’s eyes
and see the babe of the newlife there
cradled in inner light
We look out on the world and ask:
why did it take so long to find this place
where no one casts a shadow?
This day whose date is unity
this day with its red seal on the charter of man
There is then a wonderful depiction of Elauard’s recitation of his poems in the stadium of the title:
Paul, this day is yours
Through the arch of your poems march
the people to this tryst
this oval space of truth.
And some rapturous use of language ensues in poetic response:
The shaken diamond shadows of maidenhair
under the waterfall-spray
are less gentle than the trembling of your fingers
as they inscribe this day among your poems.
The phrase ‘this day among your poems’ almost suggests the poems are comparable in their very oral ‘moment-ness’ to the people gathered together in the stadium among whom one mingles. Lindsay pays homage to Eluard (who was one of the founders of the original French surrealist poetry movement) by comparison to another admired communist poet in a beautifully phrased trope:
There are not many poets blest so fully.
Mayakovsky hearing the boots of sailors hammer
his metres on the cobbles of Leningrad
was not so proudly tall.
The poem closes on an appropriately rapturous note, Lindsay imagining the view from the poet’s podium of the thousands of faces beaming down at him around the stadium, and this is employed as a metaphor for a timeless human consanguinity:
The poet sang of a single love.
Then looking up he saw about him gathered
in tiers on tiers of silence the myriad eyes
the stars and all men living.
The sentiment of this poem, and of Lindsay’s philosophy as a whole, has the character of Holism, the social philosophy of wholeness (more connected to the political Left), as opposed to atomistic and reductionist schools of thought (much more of the political Right). This is a beautiful, elegiac poem.
Next we return to Lindsay’s more historically detailed outings with ‘Pablo Neruda at Stalingrad, 1949’, which comprises two numbered and titled sections (Neruda was a Nobel Prize-winning Chilean Communist poet). ‘1 We Were on our Way to the Tractor Factory’ is written in a very tangible descriptive language and a bravura deployment of ‘g’-leaning alliterations that give a very jagged quality to the lines –note also the archaism ‘washt’:
We were on our way to the Tractor Factory.
We stopped the car and walked by the zigzag cracks,
the oddments of war washt clean of their blood by the rain
and the harsh wind licking the straggled bushes.
We crossed a railway bridge. And I watched him bend
and take some shrapnel out of the ribs of the earth.
Later we chugged across the Volga
and swam in the great waters, and in my head
the moment remained. That and the sense of cleansing,
the sky that was sky upon sky, the hurdling sweep of the river
and the broad steppe-wind sliding into Asia.
Neruda looked out on Stalingrad,
his own images uprising
all round him from the burnt and buckled tracks
and battered scarps, the cracks
of parched and living clay,
the rubble of steel and rusted stone.
His face was sad
with acid tangs of wormwood blown
across the ravaged day,
the stark eternal earth of Stalingrad.
Neruda looked on Stalingrad,
his own images uprising,
and weighed a scrap of shrapnel in his hand,
the split transfigured land
with stubborn steel-lights spilt
on children of the unbroken dance,
his face was glad,
his song was gathered in his glance,
where spread serenely built
the green eternal city of Stalingrad.
The semi-repetition of phrase is a curious feature here. We return to Lindsay’s embodied moment with the title ‘2 Now is the Moment’. The brilliant use of alliteration continues unabashed in this section, leaning notably on p-sounds:
You sit there rounded like an impossible Buddha
incarnated as the primordial Spaniard
blandly incorruptible as porcelain
and judging the world with total sympathy
for every known and unknown manifestation of life
and behind you are scattered the fragments of Stalingrad
And Lindsay’s use of sibilance and assonance is also effective here: ‘in the summer light of her irrepressible eyes’. The close of this fine poem is particularly resonant, touching again on Lindsay’s sense of the perpetual moment and the ‘concrete universal’:
Afterwards I swam in the turbulent Volga
and fought the waters, afraid of drowning
while you benignly regarded the sunset earth,
remarking as I emerged
shuddering in the heat:
‘This day has been longer than any day can be.’
We next enter into a long lyrical sequence titled ‘Three Letters to Nikolai Tikhonov’, which is split up into three lengthy sections under the titles of the three seasons ‘Autumn’, ‘Winter’ and ‘Spring’. It is important to emphasize here that this is not the same Ukrainian Soviet statesman of the Cold War era known for his ruthless efficiency, but the Greorgian-born Soviet poet and one-time chair of the Soviet Writers’ Union and member of the Serapion Brothers literary group. Lindsay, the Communist stranded in capitalist pandemonium, writes to his poet-pen pal Tikhonov as if composing a spirit-letter to an entity of happier state:
How are you faring in that Other World
with the white of mountain snow on your fiery hair
and a bristly sun at your heel whisks at a whistle
to dig you a golden grotto of Georgian warmth
The term ‘Other World’ lends a curiously mystical tone to this verse-letter, as if to be on the ‘other side’ of the Iron Curtain is tantamount to being in a parallel world or even a materialist afterlife –and it’s a clever juxtaposition. There’s a slightly less successful lyrical flourish which almost has the flavour of Roman love poetry or even a snippet from Ovid’s Metamorphosis about it:
you in the oval core of a crystal grape
like a lover in a lover’s pupil reflected
in a lover’s pupil whole as a spark of dew.
Then Lindsay surprises us with a far more successful and effective figurative flourish which, not for the first time, prefigures Dylan Thomas:
I am cold this morning in the tassel-tags of mist,
the year slips through my hands and the jagg’d boughs,
and the brown river is crowned with the twists of foam
in a silence broken by the water vole’s splash
in a silence receeding into the cavern of reeds
where something turns over and over and dies again
and the grey squirrel peers through the open fingers
of bony oak twigs. …
Send me a slip of your sun to plant by my waters
and break my windows with the red stone of your laugh.
The almost-mystical character of this piece continues:
Yours is a world that’s bursting through a world
like fruit from flower in a brief hour.
Yours is a world that’s closing round a world
a fist of light that tightens
breaking the ancient locks of the measured seed
to loose the seed within the seed
to fuse the fist of light with the honeying fruit
to see within the fruit the pip of the ungrown tree
the tree in the pip and the flower in the tree
with all the blue fires of the children’s hair
crisping along the shadow of the green
a million years ahead and now…
Again we have the emphasis on the sempiternal moment, of immanence in now-ness:
It’s always now
now in your laughter breaking the smoky windows
with a horn of wine and a dove from the steel fountains.
At times Lindsay might be accused of overdoing his rather refulgent high Romanticism:
and there in the golden leaves of the ungrown tree
we’ll rifle the moons of milk and the merry mouths
and then return upon our different worlds
with the same candid juices the same maddening sweetness
the mountain-echoes of songs of the unborn children.
It is difficult not to think that Dylan Thomas must have found some poetic nourishment in Lindsay’s oeuvre, as with this beautifully rhapsodic and flowing passage:
And you will sing more happily lapped at home
by the singing river and the wise seed begetting
wheat and rose on the selfsame stalk. And I
shall sing entranced and mad as a maenad of stone
in the gardens of trespass where the rain is black
and lovers go seeking for unforgotten selves
in the thorns of their tears and their unavailing deaths
Occasionally Lindsay waxes quite Keatsian too:
till at a tiptoe kiss
they hear the beat of the silence caverned in my tree
that takes the note of each wrangled life and echoes it in a concord,
and suddenly see their faces burning in the mirror of the rose
and know the cheat that’s shut them out from their own bodies always
even at a tiptoe kiss.
There then follows an almost mythological graftage of dialectical materialism and Marxian teleology:
They will claim with their ghostly hands the hands of earth,
by the glow of that kiss their long lost mouths will come home,
they will pass through each other’s body into their own,
and turn again on the wrath-point of a grace
branched from the dance that sparks in the round of the grape
where you are globed with a song of eternal life
and that’s the moment when Capitalism dies
and lovers and workers are one in the cock of the dawn.
They will be born again
with the sky of a storm in their hands and their righteous hair
and the shell of Venus curved blue in their halcyon eyes
and the face of Marx grown one with the ancient stones.
The mention of ‘eternal life’ is interesting given Lindsay’s supposed atheism; however, one suspects such intimations of immortality are much more in the sense of the eternal moment, and akin to the thought of Gorky and the cosmists, than any genuinely metaphysical sentiment. A symbol of Peace, such a core concept for Lindsay, emerges:
Lovers, look up and see the dove
flash on the edge of your new sight
above the man of hills you never saw before
where Time has found new curves of stillness:
that was the song of my friend
going down to Moscow.
Lindsay then tilts into full proto-Dylan Thomas thrust, to startling effect:
And now I know the silence where it nests
in the nook of that tall future which stands rooted
in our scummed river and scurfing leaves of mist
as well as in fields of the gold gay Ukraine
where amid the bells of summer I saw men sowing
a double seed of rye and song in the furrows
gathered before the dawn in a harvest of honeys
under green orchard-stars in the ring of the laughters
where the accordion swings with its ribbons
wide as the steppe-horizon:
Swing high, accordion-player,
making an arch of music for the moon.
For here is the earth at last, a place long dreamed-of
seen by the poets when they closed their eyes
and always lost to the people. Here at last
safe in the shaping hands and nightly discovered
under the dancing feet in the meadow of apples.
Call to all lost crazed sailors. Earth at last!
After a malice of storms, with bilge and worms-meat
after listless muttering months of fever…
Here his very earthy diction –‘scummed’, ‘scurfing’etc.– is particularly effective. Lindsay might well be congratulated for perhaps the most imaginative and rapturous expression of a communist poetics of transcendence in English (perhaps rivalled only by Joseph Macleod):
Tell it to the lovers, tell it to poets, in secret.
Shout it to workers in worlds where the walls are iron
hammered to murderous spikes or a rusty smoke
bitter across the eyes. For here is the dancing,
here is the Earth:
Swing high, accordion-player,
making an arch for the moon and a pearl-faced girl
till with the first long sigh of sleep
the trodden juices ooze from the vats of stone
built in the hills of distance
and burn in the dark of a dream near daybreak
burn with unbearable fires of sweetness
the earth turning
the deep calm opening and closing
valves of oceanic renewal
and wake to your world pulled down from the hoarding heavens
with a crack of corroded girders of time and space
astonishing eagles and angels
but never the deepmost heart of man.
These lines genuinely sing with an unwonted delight in the immanence of the Marxist message, lending what is commonly misperceived as a rather dry cerebral medium (something Edmund Wilson successfully dispelled with regards to Das Kapital, which he praised for its inherent poeticism of phrase and metaphor, providing abundant extracts to back this up, in his To the Finland Station (1940), particularly the Chapter ‘Marx: Poet of Commodities’). Lindsay’s Marxist rhapsody then might be seen as a recapitulation of this essential Marxist dance of symbolism.
Lindsay’s rapt lyricism surges on in this poem in an almost stream-of-consciousness, echoing at once Keats and Hopkins, and anticipating Dylan Thomas:
Nikolai, what are you at in the Other World
alone with your hulking cat on a skiey stone
looking all round the globe and back again
to a small hearth of lichened applewood
plush with green flames and the crackle of splendid thymes
that warm your open philosophic hands
and add their energies to each dynamo purring
to light up inside your flowers with colours unknown
and scatter a sackful or two of five-pointed stars
among Lysenko’s millet.
a moment, and then forget me in a song.
‘Winter’ is similarly lyrical, but of a slightly less effusive tone, given its depiction of life in the West from the point of view of a stranded communist-out-water:
What of My World then, chuckling among the beeches?
I meant to say something but the winter answered
out of its turn, with an inconsolable bird,
ahead of my mouths, and now I have lost the cue.
The echoes of my thought come back in the water
dripping from the wounded hill among the mosses.
I must listen a moment before I interpret my silence.
The ensuing two verses are beautifully composed and wrought with rich alliteration (particularly of b-sounds), a lovely aural paralleling of diction with ‘cribbles’ (which means passing something through a sieve, apparently) and ‘dribbles’, some imaginative vocabulary, and a highly successful deployment of rhyme through an A/B/C/B scheme:
Men clap their hands before a flabby fire,
frost cribbles and spills the soil along the hill.
This weather dulls the wits, it is English weather,
a damned mouse nibbles the roof and won’t stay still.
Clouds are sagging dinted on the elm tops,
the rivulet dribbles through its beard of cress.
I like this desperate pause without a clocktick,
and only the blackbird screams with a mock-distress.
One also notes the portmanteau of ‘clocktick’ and the highly imaginative use of descriptive language, as in ‘flabby fire’. These are followed, after one of many pausing centred asterisks, with an exceptional example of richly phrased rhyming iambic pentameter, which flows with an almost hypnotic Dylan Thomas-esque rhythm:
Begin then from my hillcrest lost in mist,
a track sodden with leaves that gutters down
past the dim burning windows of the dew
and twisting oak-roots, to the ambushed town,
Suddenly Lindsay hurls the reader headlong into a more contemporaneously couched MacNiecean polemical comment on the perfunctory drabness of English life under capitalism –which, in spite of its overtures to individualism, is depicted, ironically, just as conformist as popular stereotypes of life under Soviet communism; this, for me, is where Lindsay stamps his signature the most brilliantly, where familiar images of ordinariness suddenly catch light as polemic and mastery of language and all its refulgent resources combine together into something of a poetic symphony that is right up there with the best of Louis MacNiece:
the pubs where songs are sunk amid the dart-scores:
England is husht, with the God of Football Pools
working out winners and getting his figures wrong
despite all the Woolworth gadgets. On stairs of the rats,
treads in the gap between two beats of the heart,
a pit of creakings, falling, rheumatic twinges
upblown in threshing and hooked sparks. Or stirs
to stare on a backyard-world too drab for devils,
and only for that reason not boarded with hoardings:
HELL TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED
quickly no need to knock on the doors, no one expects us,
without our leaflet to-day the thoughts go nagging
the angers hungering…
The g-sound alliterations are particularly tangible here. There is then a definite Audenesque after-echo in the following passage with its consciously perfunctory listing of images preceded by the definite article as if to sanctify mundane scenarios and routines as timeless and somehow ordinarily sacred –but above all, perennial:
…Here are the fumace-fires
banked in an old claypipe, and the great hammers
poised on the callous of thumb.
But now is the stink of coke, and the trick with matches,
and words we have blurted before. And so let’s skirt
the derelict tips and shrouded lathes of Sunday,
the lovers refuged from rain in the telephone-booth,
and the dumb couples chained in the cinema-queue –
Such passages as these are, to my mind, about as strong linguistically as any such poetry gets of this particular period and more than stands up against the cream of NacNiece or Auden; for such reasons, it is unfathomable as to why Lindsay’s poetry is not as well known as his contemporaries’ –and it is to the credit of Andy Croft and Smokestack that we are being reintroduced to the important oeuvre of this Anglo-Australian master craftsman.
I’m almost tired of repeating the similarities to Dylan Thomas, but, bearing in mind the dating of this poem, provided in this next excerpt, one might begin to wonder whether by this time of composition Lindsay was aware of the younger poets’ work and perhaps in part responding to its own development of his earlier output with evermore rigorous application:
A proper place
for apocalyptic conversations, please,
in the hush of England Winter Nineteen-fifty.
The shadows of boughs filagreed with starlight
freeze in the waters. Good.
I’ll explain now why I wanted this ragged place
claimed by the owl at moonrise and the vixen
lank in the bracken when frost knocks at the tongue’s root
and the fronds of smoke crumble and crack in the eyes.
The moment of dearth. I chose it for our chat
from an old emblem book, a cut of Quarles,
the budded bough splitting the Rock of death.
I want the furious comment of your laughter.
Listen. The rock unlocks its chambered toad,
the toad vomits its jewel, the jewel writes
threaded with starlights its pale cryptogram
upon the lily’s ambiguous puff of shadow:
From Dylan Thomas to a more lyrical and rhapsodic take on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
... no escape
for it is closing time
in the gardens of the West
and from now on an artist will be judged
the resonance of his solitude
or the quality of his despair...
Personally I’d rather beget a brood
of irrelevant devils on a sourpuss ghost
here in this needling bed of frost than tune
the gut-strings of my decent solitude
in such an orchestra of absences
in a such a parlourgame of huddling fears
we know the Artist conjured by the charade
to play the martyred part in the petting-party
with a trim trauma tinkered to a cancer
pouting to deft resentment at being left out
of someone’s something somewhere infinitely left out.
yes, certainly a bore,
then let’s go home,
home but what’s that?
there’s no door any more,
haven’t you read your sartre
on mont martre?
Yes, certainly we know this Artist resonant
as a capricorn-beetle ticking in the genitals
of some sad Brazilian, or an atlantosaurus
with nothing much in its skull but a spinal cord
three times as thick as its brain
and a prehistoric orgasm
reverberating into extinction, the nether neant.
Down Nero down:
amid a titter of teaspoons praising the desert,
amid the telephone directories praising silence,
amid the impotent fairies praising love,
between the clique and the claque praising poverty,
between the cocktail and the brandy praising renunciation
between the comma and the coma discovering integrit
This poem appears to recognise no stylistic boundaries as it swings to and fro between the Thomasian, Audenesque and Eliotesque; it is an exceptional piece of work and a hugely important addition to the poetic canon of its period; simply, this and many other of Lindsay’s poems should be much better known and critically acknowledged for their rigour and significance. It’s by this point in this Selected Poems that I am minded to acknowledge that Lindsay was/is a major poet of the mid-twentieth century and one who can certainly hold a candle to the likes of Auden, Spender and MacNiece. Those influences aside, we almost tip into Joycean mode in the ensuing passages:
with hey for the yogi
whistling up a commissar bogey
and ho for the dope
the Absolutely Independent Intellectual,
with no hope,
no damned hope at all,
but cashing in
on the crapgame and the pope
though he keeps his conscience as clear as it’s ineffectual
and believes not in Wallstreet but in Original Sin,
somehow or other it’s found
Original Sin suits Wallstreet down to the ground.
It’s one of the literary ironies that arguably one of the most progressively ingenious writers of his time and indeed of any time, James Joyce, often consciously played much on nursery-style doggerel in his own writing, as did, indeed, the almost-comparable and prodigious Dylan Thomas. But, as with Joyce, this cod-doggerel technique is used to maximum effect, in Lindsay’s case, to communicate no-holds-barred polemic:
He’s strong for freedom of the mind,
and so in all his thoughts we find
he calmly follows on behind
the press-lord’s slogans well-designed
to keep the people dumb, deaf, blind.
He’s strong for independent thought,
and so with claptrap pap he’s caught,
and when he proudly sends abroad
the richest thought with which he’s stored,
the deepest thought with which he’s cored,
the echo of some dull press lord
is heard, although he tries to hide
the fact with world-end glorified.
And thus his artform justifies
the murder darkening our skies.
It is obvious to tell just how far Lindsay’s individual ‘voice’ has come by this time, 1950, around two decades into its development on the page: this is a strong and hugely confident poetic personality at composition here, which can deploy various styles and techniques echoing, even pastiching, but my no means merely imitating the likes of Eliot, Auden, Thomas, Joyce, while being every bit as imaginative and muscular as George Barker, if notably less masculine, and as mythologically sing-song as Joseph Macleod (Lindsay was, among other things, a Classicist), albeit markedly less oblique:
O Nikolai reaching at last your crag of snow,
up through the sweat of danger, looking down
out of the thunder of your solitude,
look down on the small furred forests of ancient hermits
who met with bloody fists their daily devils
and laughed with the glory of God.
That’s an old business
and shrunken out of date, but in its darkness
not altogether shaming a race embroiled
with starspawn restless in its loins.
on the many worlds of death, the lions of fire
roaring on the iron hills, the shapeless bellies
beaked in the darkening heat and the random fangs,
golgothas of greed, the mad medusa-nations,
cloaca of the egg.
How far we have come
out of the interlocked mouths….
This is also a most assertive form of free verse, faintly avant-garde at times, and reminiscent of the oeuvre of David Jones (cue In Parenthesis and The Anathemata) –this is a poet confident in his verse-libre, the irregular lengths of lines, the seemingly random enjambments and the rigorous engagement with language. We note in the next passage a poetic strain to come to terms with mortality by an attempt to immortalise the moment, or rather, embody it in aspic, and thereby transcend time, and the illusion of endings:
dies on the other side of death, we live
beyond the moment of death, and look again
on our buried hearts, the houses of the worm,
where men have made the monstrous bargains, lifting
the hem of the shadow, to buy the cold secret
of the hydra polyp or serve the tiger’s writ
on the slumbering child.
For there are presences
excreting on the faces of certain men
damnation. Rise, you peoples of the world,
this last fight let us fight.
You know the answer. But we are chatting here
in winter’s cleft, in England. Here is something
that must be seen by darkness, its own effluence
that shapes it what it is. Soon it will pass,
but first it must be faced. O my poor people,
what have they done to you?
Finally we enter ‘Spring’, surprisingly scudded by shadows:
Trouble the waters, lily of light. A key
has turned in the quick door of green
and the day’s maze encloses.
Six foot of bluebell earth, enough,
my shadow has claimed for me.
Now greenly like a ghost of glass
the day on the wavetop sways,
the translucent Shadow high as sky
leans to the lane’s lap.
Lindsay deploys another archaism with ‘crakt’, and returns again to the sempiternal moment like a salmon to its brackish origins:
What will the drag-net dredge from the depth
after the tugging hush?
a crackt skull speaking an oracle
among the leaping fish
or a hole in the empty net and storm
coming up with a rush?
This mated moment is O of birth.
Before the wave curls past
the tree’s heart breaking open reveals
the lost statue at last.
The paradox and circularity of O is of significance given Lindsay’s core philosophy. There follows a brilliantly alliterative and evocative verse which also opens with a filmic image quite typical of the poetry of the period, and a medium utilised perhaps most by Joseph Macleod (particularly in his Script from Norway (1953), which is essentially a verse film script, he having been intimately involved with radio and television broadcasting, production and scriptwriting):
This spring came easily like a lily opening
in a slow motion film, with little jerks
and gentle subsidences, the ring of the waters
flickered blue to windflowers and the thrush
urged on his song like a child his rocking-horse
riding to kingdom come.
In the ensuing verse we are almost reminded of the setting and theme of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky; Ballet Russes, 1913), which was quite possibly in Lindsay’s mind as he composed it, given the ‘Spring’ title of this section of the sequence:
I sing the day when the people in their movements
will own this urgency and ease, will tread
with grass-roots tingling the lifted arch of the sole,
as once the peasants saw the trees releasing
naked girls in a circle, now the dancers
will enter into the trees.
Lindsay is lifted off his feet with a further flight of lyrical fancy:
...there is no escape
for the orchard of life
bearing twelve manner of fruits
breaks green about us,
and from now on the Artist will be judged
the fullness of his communion
and the quality of his happiness...
Lindsay then immerses himself in a kind of humanistic holiness, a secular sanctification of life itself without any of the inhibiting notions of religion and metaphysics:
The Leaves of the Orchard
are for the healing of the Nations.
Nothing shall be any longer forbidden.
There shall be no more night.
There shall be no further need of torches.
I Jack saw and heard these things.
When I had heard and seen
I fell down to worship at the feet of the Angel
and the Angel was the Earth,
a great bush of singing birds
and people coming and going.
And my heart was broken with love,
my heart was whole again.
Again, there is a Romantic refulgence to Lindsay’s use of language:
Light, let there be light.
Joy, let there be joy.
What meagre voice will dare
to brag of its despair
in the new earth that swings
starred from the magian east?
O from the rags of stone, the chasmed hills,
the light breaks suddenly increased
and strikes a million bells of silver,
a chime of sweetness, all the gilt spires of dew,
fire-throats of birds and apple-glints of green.
And in the heart there wells
the spellbound note victorious and serene.
Next comes one of Lindsay’s more blatantly Blakean lyrical flourishes:
O subtle power of joy
your smallest wildflower-spark
lights a great universe
and holds at bay the dark
and blasts the ancient curse.
But all despair is weak
in its smug treacheries
as a mere pebble rolled
in tremendous seas.
For joy proclaims creation
and wills the world.
In pure participation
all art is born.
But in despair
life turns away from life,
divorce of the ghost and the bone,
the man and the wife,
the deathtwist of scorn,
the barren strife,
the stone of the alone
blind deaf dumb.
In raptures of participation
all art is born.
Joy wills the world
wills even despair
to be overcome
in the loves of creation.
These stanzas almost sound like a fusion of Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ (‘Sweet joy befall thee!’ –‘joy’ being a very religious-sounding word typical of hymns), ‘London’ (‘blasts the ancient curse’ is almost like a condensing of Blake’s lines ‘Blasts the new born infant’s tear/ And blights with plague the marriage hearse’), ‘Ah! Sunflower’ (‘wildflower-spark’), ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ (‘as a mere pebble rolled’) and in terms of theme, ‘The Garden of Love’ (Songs of Innocence and Experience).
There are perhaps some hints in the following trope of satirical comment on the communism of the Oxford Quads a la Auden and his well-heeled circle and their Thirties interest in the heroic symbolism of mountaineers and pilots, intrepid men of endurance and personal triumph, particularly Auden’s preoccupation with Michael Ransom in his verse-play, The Ascent of F6 (1938):
Nikolai, here’s the perch of a season suited
for mountaineers and eagles and prophesying poets.
Meanwhile, the chill wind of Lindsay’s own naivety is betrayed in the trope:
Throw down a star or two
out of the clusters knocking against our brows
as a birthday gift for Stalin.
This makes for quite uncomfortable reading today, in light of all we now know about the sociopathically paranoid Stalin’s epic ‘purges’. Lindsay continues in a kind of communistic prayer tone, carried along with more robust use of alliteration and assonance, particularly in the r- and ‘u’ sounds:
O, the earth
carries more messages than the radios know.
In shivered grass and rubadub under the ribs
our morse breaks all transmissions and suddenly
decoded in any language as music announces
the Earth of Judgment and the Angelic Spring
tapping on every grave for at least a crocus,
a chrism of light to anoint the trysted lovers
under the wreath of the shadow.
It seems fitting to use the metaphor of ‘music’ for a mass glossolalia or universal language immediately understood by all nations in order to emphasize the spirit of commonality. Then comes the somewhat cryptic ‘But we’re old hands/ at spring-games’
We can relax and watch awhile
old ferments that we helped to brew maturing
in the blunt head of the Atlas-seedling uplifting
a trophy-crumb of soil and the twined fingers
of the young lovers isled in the forest-hush
and the workers united in stark noonlight of liberty
and a world of things a world of loveliest things
manifold Earth and its dogged transformations
The above passage more clearly tips into stream-of-consciousness than probably any previous ones of Lindsay’s, and one feels just a smidgen of punctuation here and there might have rescued it from a very slightly clumsy breathlessness of expression, effective though the natural imageries –‘forest-hush’ and the portmanteau ‘noonlight’ might be, themselves, along with ‘loveliest things’, reminding us again of the influence of Hopkins. An ensuing aphorism is particularly interesting given its emphasis on the confusion between employment (‘work’) and occupation (hobby, pass time, vocation, calling etc.) and leisure (‘play’):
and man with work and play
so tangled in the quick of transformations
he cannot sort out which is which.
Again we get some religious imagery:
But first the Earth of Judgment and the Spring
a Michael of trumpets against the city of whores
crying Woe Woe that Great City
clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet.
Then comes the concluding verse, a kind of communist encomium, which again echoes Lindsay’s ‘concrete universal’ and ‘embodied moment’ with the poem’s assertion of itself as a living and relevant entity, an eternal and immanent source of expression which will figuratively and literally –through others’ recitations or singing of it– leap off the page and take its active role in worldly events, finally encompassing all people within its rhythm and cadence –a tall assertion indeed for any poem or poet to make, but the point is presumably that any poem of authentic commons sentiment, not only this one, can be thus shared among all:
After the smoke of its burning seen far off at sea
there will be simply the Earth of the Poets and of Lenin
and on that day this poem will rise up
and go out into the streets
and go out into the meadows
and everyone will be inside this poem
and the poem will be a single meadow flower
trampled by the dancers
and then the poem will be high up in the singing air
and then upon the lips of all the dancers singing.
‘To Ann’ has to be one of the most unusual love poems I’ve ever read, a definitive communist love poem in its singular juxtaposition of love for an individual and love for all human kind, of intimacy and universality somehow fused into one indivisibly –like a third of the holy trinity; there is emphasis too on the timelessness of love and human feeling; of how, almost through some kind of karmic communism of the consciousness, the personal experience is perpetually repeated through those of other people afterwards: ‘When lovers meet/ I meet you always’ –and ‘always’ is the operative word here. This romance of communism is made even more emphatic in the final two verses:
When lovers meet
nothing is lost:
the communist future
once grasped in our hands
When loves meet
all bitterness goes
the memory still
of that future is mine.
That final trope also plays again on Lindsay’s sense of the now-ness of everything, of the moment embodied, of the entwining of the ‘concrete universal’ and ‘universal love’ (which is at the core of the altruistic and philanthropic creeds of communism, socialism, Buddhism and Christianity). As the Andy Croft's Note on the poem at the back of the book elucidates, ‘Ann Davies (1914-54) was a Unity Theatre actress and themanager of Fore Publications. She and Lindsay lived together from 1944 until her death’.
‘Where are We Hopelessly Wrong? – written during a committee meeting at Marx House, 1953, comprises four un-rhyming quatrains –here are the thought-provoking third and fourth:
and look again on our own faces
from unsuspected mirrors set
by enemies in midst of words
to turn them on more complex axes
and yet the world is never further
than the revolving windows blown
by the dark breath of weathercocks
into the dawn of all the peoples
‘In the Night of Warsaw – to Bertolt Brecht also in the Hotel Bristol, 1952’ is a rather saturnine lyric with a wintry feel about it befitting its eponymous location and dedicatee:
I looked down from the window high above the street
and saw in the opposite ruin a cleared-out space
with an arc light cutting the midnight
and in the heart of the light two dancers
and I thought of you asleep in a room below
and the Warsaw of rubble all round us in the shattered night.
And there was no one alive in Warsaw that moment
in Warsaw in Poland on the earth
but the couple who danced in the jag-edged island of light.
and it didn’t seem to matter,
it was possible, necessary, and good,
that no one was left alive but a dancing couple,
as long as they danced in the wound in the rib of night,
as long as they danced.
I who have praised the summer abundance,
the hand-in-hand dancers ringing the earth,
and have said that nothing else justifies our struggle,
I have always felt more at home in winter
in loss privation aloneness
in the absolute of death.
The absence of commas in the penultimate line above curious. The poem attempts an arresting subversion or turning upside down of ontological logic into a play of flipped opposites and rudimentary contradictions, making for some stunning aphorisms which, however seemingly nonsensical, carry the verisimilitude of sagacity (particularly the first):
I distrust all easy embraces,
all gifts whatsoever, a words
save those that have passed the test of silence…
we must recognise alienation
before we can live unalienated,
the momentary impact
when we are all men because we are nobody,
when we are alive because we are dead,
when we are in contact because we are cut off.
This is one of Lindsay’s more phantasmagorical forays, and it works well on its own terms.
‘Randall Swingler at Pebmarsh’ depicts the eponymous well-heeled Winchester and Oxford-educated communist poet (whose uncle Randall Davidson was Archbishop of Canterbury 1903-1928), particularly poetically active during the Thirties –Difficult Morning (1933), The Left Song Book, (1938) compiled with Alan Bush– composing a poem. Lindsay’s poem is composed in four six-lined stanzas deploying rhythmically hypnotic A/B/A/B/B/A rhyme schemes. Here it is in full:
The daffodil-stars break gold
in a mist of green and grey,
the grasses prick from the mould,
and the clencht buds unfold
on the apple-branch, grown bold
in the circling whites of day.
Randall stares at the round
of swelling earth, and smiles.
What rhymes may best expound
The tangle and order found
in a rood of English ground
with Spring at her hedgerow-wiles?
O the song goes deep and deep
in the oak-roots of the wood,
in the ploughland’s marshalled sweep
there the lads one day will reap
the song with the corn and heap
the barns of brotherhood.
While the new harmonies ring,
break through with plough and pen
where thrush and daffodil bring
the insurrection of Spring
in a challenge echoing
along the hedges of men.
The phrase ‘hedges of men’ is particularly potent, referring as it does to the common sight of English patchwork fields, which were of course formed artificially by with hedges grown to demarcate the old feudal enclosures of land cleared by of former Saxon occupants/tillers by Norman transplantation and carved up between feudal barons.
After a hiatus of relatively shorter poems, we return to Lindsay’s raison d'être of the longer, more discursive poem, with ‘Paris Midnight’, which is dedicated ‘to Tristan Tzara at a corner of the Boulevard St Michel’ (‘Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) was a Romanian and French poet and essayist and one of the founders of the Dada movement. Lindsay wrote about his relationship with Tzara in Meetings with Poets (1968)). This is one of Lindsay’s more didactic and consciously intellectual poems, drawing as it does on what seems to be an ongoing dialectical conversation between himself and the eponymous Romanian-French avant-garde poet:
Tristan you first discovered
under bibles, advertisement-hoardings, and metaphysics
that Chaos was not a primordial condition
but an involuntary invention
of bourgeois cuttlefish
exuding darkness to confuse the issue
and find themselves at home
There’s an immediate echo of Louis MacNiece here in the contemporary consumerist imagery, as well as of Joseph Macleod in the unapologetic cerebration and use of marine symbolisms. The next stanza, in confident free verse, is exceptionally phrased and brilliantly alliterative (particularly with b-sounds), scattered by Lindsay’s now trademark portmanteaus:
Your lot was harder than that of Herakles.
You had to fight a hydra-world of copulas
with every momentary monster
a lie, an injustice, a selfrighteous murder;
cleanse the dunged stables of our sleep
by propagandising among the winds
and educating dungbeetles to a proper sense
of their historic mission;
penetrate the smug parlours
of patriarchal hell
with all its smell of pisspots and boiled cabbage,
dissociation of sensibility
and stock-exchange ticker-tape
bitter and bitterer
jobs for a poet on a night of spring
with all a million million leaves outbursting
from the joint of this thumb
his kneejoints and his ears
as he takes root in the delighted earth.
This is a very different type of poem to the earlier Lindsay’s gradualism of form and metrical tendencies –this is out and out vers libre and as confident in its own skin, and as effective, as any such poetry of the period:
Night breaks its chains
and there is space the colour of abandon
still growing larger under the rain’s glazed eye
but you who bind the days to flowers
flowers I say O mockery by cursed temporary sojournes
and well I hear you piercing tunnel-cries
slow suffocations among the debris of men
you flick the whip of the insensible laugh
you knot the wreathe of silence
spring opened in the very midmost of the night
difficult thought unwieldy din of density of smoke
and grace that’s spinning like a tree of stars
where some live presence shows its double form
and one is winter’s and the other one is joy’s
O must I pass between the blindly writhing wakes
by the lusty sea’s ripe nakedness
covered alone with mists among the songs of fire
how far must I go following you forbidden face
to the world’s root
Lindsay has also, by this point in his poetic development (the mid-fifties perhaps? My only slight grip with what is a chronological arrangement in this book is the absence of composition dates), sufficiently self-assured to indulge in some elements of surrealism (something ostensibly anathema to him due to its abstractedness), a poetic movement which never really took off in England, debuting as it did during the more directly polemical stylistics of the mid-Thirties. English surrealism only really left a mark on one or two poète maudits –or enfant terribles– of the period, such as David Gascoyne, and to a lesser extent, and only occasionally, Dylan Thomas and George Barker.
(Although Auden’s earlier greener poetry (circa 1928-1933), particularly his longer works and verse plays, had experimented with aspects of surrealism and avant-garde, he had more recently been inspired, no doubt, by his contemporaries Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood’s grotesque ‘Mortmere’ stories. Rooted in a more Nordic-medieval strain of surrealism, the ‘Mortmere’ sagas appealed to Auden’s romantic notions concerning his Nordic-sounding name and much-trumpeted Icelandic ancestry. Auden’s own ‘surrealism’ more often than not involved the use of robust colouristic imagery and the tweezering-out of definite articles and conjunctions from his lines; highly ironic, given his later over-articulate inserting of the definite article to precede many of his images in order to lend the contemporary and quotidian something of a timeless sanctified quality).
But what makes Lindsay’s surrealist qualities here, to my mind, more arresting than those of the better-known and more highly acclaimed David Gascoyne, are their intermingling with contemporaneous polemic, as the following verse demonstrates, which begins, somewhat surreally
I see you small as a mole in the night of April
sapping a mountain, careless
if the gigantic crags come down on your head
as long as they come down.
Patient as a statue of bearded granite
deep in the night of Egypt:
you hold your poem like a stopwatch in your hand
counting the moment till the hidden fuse explodes
the accumulated tensions of a callous world,
the TNT of tentacled anxieties
but then tilts back into less abstract and more grounded polemical imagery and allusions:
hooked in the genitals and the Friday payslip
heaped-up in insurance (verified) details
and the hire-purchase deeds
of a modern-convenient maisonette in hell
Suddenly pity like an explosion of silence
is knocking, knocking
knocking at a door where no door was
knocking at a heart where no heart was
and the door opens, the heart breaks.
(The phrase ‘tentacled anxieties’ is worthy of note for attempting to pin down the tangled and wriggling nature of neurotic preoccupations and obsessions). Then comes a trope which might be read also as a self-conscious stylistic quip:
The possibility of being human
appears, as the final abstraction opens its desert
Lindsay’s preoccupations with time, mortality, and the immortality of the moment ‘embodied’, burst through in a sublime lyrical and figurative stanza self-transcendence, in which he and his words almost will themselves into expressing something outside of themselves, by conjuring a sense of disembodiment; of the illusion of time and the elusive reality of the eternity of moments; that one is already in effect dead but yet still alive, it all simply being a matter of time and perspective. And one might even go so far as to suggest that to recognise and adjust to this contradiction is in part the route to an acceptance of one’s own mortality; this being, at one level, its own kind of comprehended immortality. (It is just as difficult to imagine one’s past birth as it is one’s future death: our pre-conscious embryonic existences are no less comprehensible than the prospect of our ultimate post-consciousnesses). This is a kind of Buddhist paradoxical logic, moment-ness, or sense of the eternal present moment; which, no doubt through meditation, precludes in those most adept at such immanences any fear of death (indeed, much thanatophobia is supposedly rooted not so much in the reality of one’s eventual death as simply the way in which language frames the concept of death).
Faintly surreal aspects re-emerge –excuse the pun– randomly, as in the curious image ‘I am horse I am river’, which almost unconsciously denotes the hippopotamus, from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘river horse’. The trope 'I get along badly all the same I live' almost prefigures the jumbled illogic randomised later LSD-influenced Beatles-lyrics of John Lennon, in particular in this instance, his ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’: ‘No one I think is in my tree’ and ‘Always, no sometimes, think it's me/ But you know I know when it's a dream/ I think I know I mean a yes/ But it's all wrong/ That is I think I disagree’. Indeed, there is in Lindsay’s philosophical conjectures such as karmic consanguinity, or rather, the almost-telepathy of empathy and collective consciousness, something of distant template for the future LSD-fuelled Lennon, as in other such late-Beatles lyrics as ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Glass Onion’.
Lindsay next hurtles full tilt into an imagining of re-Creation as according to the human mind and all its desires and needs; there is a telling combining of the perceived evils of ‘cruelty and duality’, and we know of course that the poet’s concept of the ‘concrete universal’ is pitched in diametrical opposition to Cartesian dualism. There is a re-negotiation with the Bible’s assertion of God’s ‘sevenday fiats’, and ‘a universe to be created’ (or rather, re-created). There is the almost Nietzschean prospect of
man emerging from nether forests
with eyes bewildered, the convalescence
painful after the night of knives
That latter phrase would appear to allude to the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, during which Adolf Hitler had his political opponents bumped off by his brownshirts. There is the hunger for a new form of language, or humanistic glossolaia, a material means of communication:
the anguish of learning a new language
where money won’t modify every incidence
of grammar and meaning
It is interesting here to note the combining of ‘anguish’ with ‘language’, since, as we are verbal beings whose thoughts are partly shaped by semantics (though our very visual, image-based imaginations almost always overreach them in certain thoughts and feelings which simply can’t be encapsulated in alphabetical arrangements –there are no symbols for the incomprehensible or unfathomable, and psychiatric schools might argue that such psychotic symptoms as ‘word salad’ or ‘schizophasia’ are an expression of such semantic limitations), much of our anguish and anxieties stem –as aforementioned in relation to the concept of death– from language.
Lindsay’s imagery flexes into almost phantasmagorical imageries and symbolisms:
the rediscovery of flint and grass
mountain-spring and depths of ocean
the moon in the woman’s opening belly
the sun of righteousness in the man’s breast
Notice too the part-pun of the phrase ‘sun of righteousness’ where it might normally, in Christian terms, be ‘son of righteousness’ –this again appears to be Lindsay’s way of asserting the material universe over any metaphysical notions of a soteriological one. But in the long dark night of the human mind, of the godless ego in a material universe, and the ironic possibility of greater abstraction as a result, Lindsay guards against solipsism which, in a world of constant conflict and privation, is a temptation indeed, just as appeasement is to brutal dictators:
the terrible moment of truth
when every mirror on earth lies shattered
by the pressure within of cruel images
and men must look in each other’s eyes
for verification of existence
an endless journey on hardship’s ridges
and an immediate goal
recognized with the bowels’ lucidity,
all this and more you needed to order
here in the Paris of alienation
This exceptional and philosophically confident poem then comes to its quite profound, almost stream-of-consciousness and Eliot-esque crescendo:
what do I lack untended forces
of light’s enchantments
I grafted fragile life
on vigorous laughter of mountains
where old memories of rubble wastelands
are slumbering in my flesh
listen immensity outside
is breaking in the trees
the fruit of castanets
is lighted up in the cascade
you waken the sealed fire
in the deceitful dawn
here are winds petrified
in gowns of sleeping women
O stones dance through the night of obdurate ages
numbers and their prey grown visible here below
until you burst into blood’s laughter
that earth may now come home on earth
and all its kingdom’s seed be multiplied
Let earth at last come home on earth
The fractured syntactical aspects of these closing lines seems particularly appropriate given the sense of thought and semantics breaking down on the difficult path to an immanent comprehension of the universe and humankind’s place within it; a path which is obfuscated by the ‘rubble of wastelands’ (though Lindsay might have condensed these two lines to simply: ‘on vigorous laughter of wastelands’); which is haunted and fascinated by the howling ‘immensity outside’ it, the black airless universe wherefrom ‘light’ has ‘tricked’ the human mind into believing in invisible forces outside of itself when, according to Lindsay, the only sentience and power is within our minds, within ourselves, not as created beings but as accidental consciousnesses.
This strain of thought can easily lead to nihilism and solipsism, but it’s a bold one, a kind of semi-mystical existentialism with which Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, D.H. Lawrence, Sartre and Freud might feel fairly at ease (if any of them ever did actually feel ‘at ease’ about anything!). The last line stamps the atheistic-materialist-Marxist signature of this explosion of a poem emphatically at its close, and, although this writer is not himself an atheist, makes for a powerful and quite touching plea.
As if by complete prosodic contrast, the next poem, ‘Christmas Eve 1952’, is composed in four quatrains of A/B/C/B rhyme schemes, employing fairly simple diction, and imparting a quite Blakean or Morrisian sentiment and style:
A baby is crying in the wintry world
that closes all its covetous doors.
In the dark manger of the breathing beasts
the outcasts huddle on bare floors.
And still the new life cries in darkness, still
the masters hoard their sweated pence,
and then the abject terrors strike again
to massacre the innocents.
The dawn moves every westward, flowing past
the lines of the dividing maps.
It slides through every window of man, and wakes
the heart upon whose pane it taps.
In vain are bolts and bars against this light,
the cry of life renewed
breaks the old stones, and men uniting stand
against all Herod’s brood.
‘To Ilya Ehrenburg –on his 60th Birthday’ is a relatively straightforward encomium to the eponymous top Soviet writer and propagandist whose prolific works included the novel The Thaw, whose title came to historically denote the post-Stalin period of ‘liberalisation’, but whose notoriously hortatory Second World War article Kill incited Russian troops to kill all German soldiers they encountered, including those they had captured; in light of these notorieties, Lindsay’s choice for poetic tribute is somewhat disturbing, though one presumes he was not at the time of composition aware of such extremes associated with Ehrenburg –particularly when writing
Yours is the tenderness strong
when the hour of choice is stark,
to guard the new life crying
in the wild dark.
The Note (Andy Croft ed.) at the back of the book informs us that Ehrenburg was, among other things, ‘a war-correspondent during the First and Second World Wars and the Spanish Civil War’ and ‘a signatory to the Stockholm Appeal’.
Finally, after my speculations on Lindsay’s possible influence on the younger Dylan Thomas (a moot point, since this book charts Lindsay’s poems from 1935, while the younger poet’s debut collection, Twenty-five Poems, was published only a year later (1936) –hence this might have well been a mutual influence) and, later, perhaps a mutual influence/poetic sparring between them both, we come upon the fascinatingly insightful ‘Last Words with Dylan Thomas’, with its long branching lines and direct address of the legendary Welsh word-spinner –one assumes this was written on news of Thomas’s untimely death from a deluge of whiskey, aged just 39. The opening lines suggest this, with glittering g-hinging alliteration:
So they got you at last despite your guiles of surrender
despite your sleight-of-hand with the apple-of-eden
despite your efforts to carry a piece of darkness
round on the palm of your hand
Lindsay then hits out at the obituary writers:
And now the people whom you most despised
write lies of praise about you
And the very ironic observation of Thomas’s critics suddenly becoming his posthumous appraisers, as if suddenly undergoing Damascene conversions on the path to critical posterity:
There was nothing in the world you hated but cruelty
and you loved almost everyone except the people who now praise you
Rather than, as one might expect, employing some of the sing-song stylistics of Thomas’s own poetry, aspects which, as previously discussed, might well have owed some debt to his own poetic output, Lindsay comes at the subject from a more lounging, prose-inflected standpoint, albeit one thick with rich imagery and description:
Dylan walking in the midnight of a London
without the penny of a drink in our pocket
you assumed the mask of innocence over you innocence
and affronted the patronising world with a beggar’s palm
Lindsay’s depiction of Thomas is, perhaps surprisingly in many respects –and contrary to much latter received wisdom as to aspects of the character of the ‘womanising’, ‘schoolboyish’ and even ‘ruthless’ Welsh bard (at least, according to the film The Edge of Love (2008) and the recent, slightly more sympathetic BBC 4 tele-play A Poet In New York (2014)– seemingly one of near-idolisation; although the following trope, meant as a compliment, cannot help but slightly go back on its own premise in light of Thomas’s notorious habit of ‘sponging’ money and favours off others:
You were a Robin Hood of tavern thickets
talking through a burnt-out cigarette
taking from the rich to give to the poor,
yourself the poorest
and dodging behind the wildwood of a baffling image
Nevertheless, in spite of popular depictions of the poet, Lindsay lets us into some of Thomas’s more likeable and sympathetic idiosyncracies, he presumably having known the younger poet fairly intimately:
You wept in the cinema at people weeping
you wept and signed the Rosenberg Petition
you frowned and forgot to reach for another drink
Indeed, the Note on this poem at the back of the book elucidates further: ‘Lindsay wrote about his relationship with Thomas in Meetings with Poets’.
Lindsay also depicts Thomas’s lesser known political convictions and sympathies, which were, as a recent article on the centenary of the poet’s birth published in the Morning Star also instructively detailed (‘Do not go gentle’ by Sean Ledwith, MS 6 Nov. 2014) significantly to the Left, if not, essentially, communist, and emphatically anti-fascist:
You looked out over the cells of fascism and wrote
Light breaks where no sun shines
You looked out on Chamberlain from your hut of indignation and wrote
The hand that signed the paper felled a people
You denounced the guilty men of Nuremberg
in words heavy as clencht fists
There follows a beautifully phrased passage in some aspects worthy of Thomas himself, albeit, as we know now well, very much original Lindsay:
But life was a sudden wind from that vats of cider
the distance where a girl dreamed in the
cloverfield of her body
and grief was the lair of thunder in the oceanic shell
you smiled and reached for another pot of beer
Thomas was demonstrably someone whom Lindsay grew to know and admire, and find common sentiments with, particularly in terms of politics:
You looked out from your bitter eyes of innocence
and knew it all and hid in your gentleness
We shall not walk again the London of a midnight
You knew it all, the map of our sharp-edged conflicts
and hoarsely whispered your indignant pity
I am for the people
I am against all who are against the people
Lindsay’s empathy for the dipsomaniacal Thomas is genuinely touching:
But the map’s contours blurred in your angry tear
in the wheeling iris-lights of the lovely earth
you smiled and reached out for another beer
And life was a lifted wave with the naked image
borne on the curved shell of the mastered elements
the snakes of the wind in the tresses of blown gold
and the mouth of a sudden kiss come close and closest
The phrase ‘life was a lifted wave’ is a wonderfully imaginative symbolism for the turbulent properties of the habitual alcoholic drink-in-hand. The phrase ‘I am for life/ I am against all who are against life’ is repeated again like an anchoring mantra. Lindsay then deploys another beautiful sequin of images to pay homage to the troubled younger poet and his poetic pilgrimage back to a rapturous childhood bucolic (in particular, his celebrated ‘Fern Hill’):
You turned back to the childhood of a hayhigh sweetness
and climbed the stairs of water
seeking a thousand ways through the walls of murder
that closed the streets of daily life about you
into the endless spiral of the rose-heart
Lindsay spirals headfirst into a rhapsodic recapitulation of Thomas’s own celebrated poetic style replete with portmanteaus, kaleidoscopic scudding images and sing-song tumbling rhythm, albeit more littered with Latinate diction than would be the case in its dedicatee’s own poetry:
But because your face was innocent under a guileful mask
you always came on people
the dark tunnel of silence led to the friendly voices
the vortex of blind growth came still to rest
on the familiar faces of common people
worn by life as stones are worn by water
and you loved them even more than you loved the stones
the delicate maze of the revolving rose
broke into the clear face of your wife
and you were home again
in the daily streets yet closed with the walls of murder
seeking another way to break and pierce them
the way of simple union and shared needs
the lionheart of honey the furious tooth of salt
the spinning wheel of the cottage-flower
the children’s voices kiteflown in the dusk
the body of labour broken as bread is broken
and given in daily renewal
the lap of sleep and the ultimate round of dancing
Then Lindsay depicts Thomas very much as an overgrown schoolboy or apple-scrumper being caught in the act of attempting to smuggle himself away into a kind of arrested adult-infancy of sensation and imagination –although another implication here is of a literal depiction of Thomas as boy, the metaphor can serve at both levels:
But they got you at last before you had clambered through
they caught you halfway in the hole you had made in the walls,
scraping at midnight, hiding the mortar in pockets
they caught you helpless they broke you across the back
and broke you across the brow
and you smiled in your sleep
It is indeed difficult to disentangle what is Lindsay or Thomas in what might ostensibly appear to be images and phrases of a kind of pastiche-Thomas, as in the wonderful and very Under Milk Wood-ish ‘The flowers of endless gardens/ not yet sown from the wayward aprons of wind’. Then comes a final figurative slamming again of Dylan’s critical detractors now turned his posthumous Myrmidons:
The murderers got you Dylan
and now they praise you in their church of death
and those who were waiting with outstretched hands to drag you
up the jagged shores of safety
mourn and remember you another way.
The final trope is a more elegiac mourning for the ‘dying of the light’ in the great poet’s eyes, the now ultimately spent ‘green force that through the green fuse’ drove the flower:
We turned to look at the dawn gone out of your eyes
and burning securely along the shores of the gathering peoples
and there your play with the apple has lost the sting of its guile.
This is a moving encomium to one of the greatest and arguably most personally misunderstood poets of our literary heritage.
The next poem has a rather modernistic tilt to its offbeat title, ‘Sudden Discords in the Trumpets of Overdelayed Last Judgment, 1956’; the Note on the poem elucidates: ‘At the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, the new Soviet leadership attacked the ‘cult of personality’ and revealed the extent of the Stalin tyranny. In November Soviet troops re-entered Budapest to prevent Hungary leaving the Warsaw Pact. By the end of the year over 7,000 members (a fifth of the entire membership) had left the British Communist Party, including many of Lindsay’s closest friends’. In spite of its oblique title, it is one of the less experimental of Lindsay’s poems, employing a random rhyme scheme, fairly accessible –albeit almost mystical/metaphysical– narrative, and simple diction. This a ‘poet’s reverie’ type of poem, or perhaps based on a dream, in which Lindsay is haunted by his own apparently discarnate and wiser self:
In the endless night I dreamed
that my own Face came near
from the other end of space.
grinning, unscarred, ungrieving.
‘You knew it all,’ my voice said,
‘I’m the one you’ll never deceive.
Don’t lie any more or you’re damned
to the dingiest ditches of hell.’
And so this turns into a dialogical poem conducted between two parts of the poet’s own personality:
My otherself said with a sneer,
‘Dialectical insight you claimed,
but never once grasped, it’s quite clear,
the deep nature of contradictions,
the darkness, the guile there, as well
as the obvious opposites clashing.
Laired in paradise regained
is the subtly satanic curse.’
The language has a tendency to lapse into prose here and there; it’s also not altogether clear why the second line above, for example, is syntactically inverted. The poem is therefore a more straightforward exercise in dialectical discussion:
‘I’m lost, I’ve no compass, no guide.’
‘Then there’s some hope. You must pierce
to the core of the moving whole
with it’s tangle of choice and of chance,
its shrouded and shining goal.
Now cast all illusions aside,
but reject disillusionment too.’
The poem concludes in something of a non-climax:
I woke in the sudden morning
with stormclouds luridly spread.
The road was there, baffled and torn,
glimpsed and then brokenly lost,
with all ditches and dangers crisscrossed
in its zigzag towards the unknown.
Yet I saw how it led on ahead.
I saw there was no turning-back.
I was one of a host, and alone.
Alone, I was one of a host.
This is perhaps one of the less successful of Lindsay’s poems in this book, but not without some merit.
The excellently titled ‘At the Heart of the Maze of Fetishes’ is dedicated ‘to Edith Sitwell in London, at the Sesame Club, after lunch’. The poem is not, as one might expect, a satirical ribbing by the empirical Communist of the posturing bohemianism, avant-garde elitism and abstracted literary tendencies (or ‘pretentions’) of the aristocratic Sitwell coterie; there is no attempt here to compete with –the oppositely Vorticist and pro-fascist– Wyndham Lewis’s prolific stripping down of said familial cognoscenti (whom comprised three siblings and perceived ‘poseurs’: Edith, the poetess, Osbert Sitwell, the novelist and memoirist, and Sacheverell, the writer and art critic).
What we get is actually a straightforward dedication to a fellow poet with whom he is very familiar and with whom he has just sojourned (Note: ‘Lindsay published her The Shadow of Cain at Fore Publications. He wrote about their relationship in Meetings with Poets and in an unpublished MS The Starfish Road’), and a poem which is an Eliotonian meditation on contemporary alienation in a materialistic society, and, more pointedly, a Marxist take on the superficiality and acquisitiveness of consumer capitalism in all its morbid worship of abstract capital and inanimate –and often purely decorative– objects; the shop window-display that is the Western world:
The poem starts in full linguistic swing demonstrating a masterly –and Eliotonian– assuredness of style, image and alliterative verbalism:
In Trafalgar Square, the heart of the maze of fetishes,
the mask of the snake sodden with black blood,
the ragged knife of stone and the idol blotcht with nail-heads:
along the Embankment the naked women wailing
with rivermud bubbling in the wounds of their faces
and the sacred harlots sprawled in the streets of Westminster:
Lindsay’s use of assonance and alliteration (mostly of m- and k-sounds) is striking and almost incantatory in its thick clustering, and takes on a more polemical Marxian tone reminiscent of MacNiece, not to say the polemic of Edmund Wilson; it’s also good to see the phrase ‘commodity-fetishism’ so deftly smuggled into a line of verse:
who does not see these things is blind with the single sight
that reflects dead surfaces only. The midnight worships
spiked in the mangrove-swamps migrate at a crueller magic,
commodity-fetishism; and Europe, with all it’s complex history
sunk to a radio-whine of pretences and abstract skills,
leaves Africa human, itself a mere market of deathdolls.
We seem to move through a strange mélange of imageries and symbolisms, along Joseph Conrad’s caliginous Congo river in Heart of Darkness and onto the Thames mudbanks of the ‘brown lands’ of Eliot’s London in The Waste Land:
The faces in London streets are stranger to me than masks of the Congo.
The terror is there, and the menace, but flabby with daydream evasion.
The terror is there, nut blurred and evaded, shapeless.
The masterful planes intersecting – the power over space.
The ripening rhythms of dance – the power over time.
These are gone. All are gone. But the terror remains.
And this ‘terror’ is the spiritless materialism and consumerism of capitalist society, or in Lindsay’s phrase, ‘the maze of fetishes’; then comes a potent image at once alluding both to Sophocles’ Oedipus and Shakespeare’s Gloucester from King Lear:
And he who can’t see it has had all his eyes pickt way
by vultures of money in deserts of lonely sleep.
In the following verse, we get what appear to be literary allusions: one, ‘façade’, is possibly a reference to Edith Sitwell’s Façade (1922), which was set to music by the then avant-garde –but later highly traditional and establishment– composer William Walton (and famously staged with Sitwell speaking through a Sengerphone from behind a curtain which had a hole cut into the mouth of a painted face upon it); and to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892):
when the façade leans out, cricks, cracks with a puff of dust
we see the hidden faces that crawl beneath our wallpapers
and melt with medusa-chills on the clammy pillow of tears.
This Sitwellian allusion of ‘façade’ is serendipitous as it is of course highly germane to the poem’s overall theme of the falseness and superficiality of consumerism. Perhaps Lindsay further alludes to the ‘spectre’ of Communism in the line, ‘The light of the future/ comes beating up from behind the high red ramparts of longing’, as well as also playing on the perennial image of royalties’, actors’ and celebrities’ ‘red carpet’ of fame so typical of capitalist societies.
Lindsay then tilts into his more mystical –almost cosmist– reveries, which gets into a bit of a surrealist twist:
The poet catches in a single palm
the lice brusht out of the fur of the sliddering devil
and the lichens of crystal blown from the world far ahead.
The exposed present is the cross of love
and the wings of transfiguration, amoeba-division
and a body of light that leaps from the furthest horizon.
And something else, that unites and divides, in judgement;
in action, divides and unites:
Lindsay then hurls himself into mythological imagery reminiscent of his contemporary Joseph Macleod:
you hold in your open hand
the forest of ancient sleep
with a moon in every pool
and fernsides grottoed deep.
In a frock of sprigged muslin
a naiad informs each shadow
and a dance-ring burns silver
turning in each meadow.
There in the spiralling silence
the smith in his cave of smoke
beats iron for all men
and knots for the stormy oak.
Then the poem’s tone becomes more personalised in its direct addressing of the dedicatee as it meditates on the true purpose of poetry:
This moment is your pulse
when the façade falls down
and the deathless girl of the kiss
is every girl in town.
The clipped lyricism and taut A/B/C/B rhyme scheme then homes in on a theme of an anticipated authentic poetics of an authentic communal society to come, disposing of Christian Salvationist iconography on its course:
When poetry comes true
and England at last uprises
the song then meets at each turn of the streets
its own wildwood surprises.
The mirror of transformations
cracks in its jealous frame
as men and women each moment
beat it at its own game.
New dares, new tests and trials
confront the poet then –
without a Bethlehem strawcrown
among his fellowmen.
For he who watched the murder
must sham that he’s not there
or that he’s out of his legal wits
with straw in his penniless hair.
Meanwhile you hold in your hand
the jagging lights of hell,
the thicket of ancient sleep,
and the dream, the saving spell.
Another portmanteau, ‘strawcrown’, is noted; while one wonders if the references to ‘murder’ witnessed is a subtle dig at Auden’s notoriously decontextualised line from his long poem Spain (1937), ‘The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’, with which George Orwell took particular umbrage at the time of its publication.
‘The Perspective for Art’, dedicated to the poet’s niece, Cressida (Note: ‘Cressida Lindsay (1930-2010) was a novelist and the daughter of Lindsay’s younger brother Philip’), is one of the shortest of Lindsay’s poems, comprising just three verses of nine lines each (a curious number) employing a curious rhyme scheme which alternates slightly throughout. The poem seems to be an indictment of the modern world’s congestion and pollution, and consumerist society’s facile escapisms. Here it is in full:
The faceless ogres grow so daily
we scarcely note their speedway shadow
scorch the grass across the meadow,
the hellstreets paved with good intentions,
the houses ghostly as a tombstone.
The announcer coughs but never mentions
the ubiquitous tick of dryrot doom
The bloated city blurts with smoke,
the agued country’s raked with damp.
The eunuch furies leave their stamp
on all, till our policed desires,
batoned around the close of can’t,
feel freely only when gangster fires
from film-pools of narcissistic phantoms.
We yawn, unwoken;
still the dogmatic slumber’s unbroken.
The Good Life – where’s a just directive?
Truth, naked as a rose is red,
without a pistol at her head;
Man mated with the Universe
in a fourposted depthless bed,
shedding the headlong birthborn curse
and signing amnesties with the dead.
The dream gives art a full perspective,
and nothing else, when all is said.
‘Song of a Refugee from the Twenties’ is usefully dated within its dedication: ‘to Edgell Rickword, in the later 1960s, at Halstead’; as the Note at the back of the book elucidates, Rickword was both a friend and neighbour of Lindsay’s: ‘In 1958 he moved to Halstead in Essex, not far from the Lindsays’ home in Castle Hedingham’). Another short poem, it comprises six quatrains employing Lindsay’s standard default-rhyme scheme of A/B/C/B. This is perhaps one of Lindsay’s least successful poems and feels rather throwaway in quality, as if it is more a sketch in first draft form. But it’s of some small interest for expressing again Lindsay’s convictions of the ‘embodied’ moment and ‘concrete universal’, and his innate distrust, even contempt, for abstraction:
Then a few years ago,
an old man in a London street,
I roused myself from an abstract thought
and nobody to meet,
and all around me I saw
the girls with wildwood hair
and the lads with ridiculous beards…
‘Three Family Poems’ comprises three numbered verses dedicated to his two brothers and his father; it’s germane to excerpt from the Note to this poem that ‘Ray Lindsay (1903-1960) was a distinguished painter and bookillustrator. Philip Lindsay (1906–1958) wrote many books ofhistorical fiction and biography. He was one of the writers responsible for Paul Robeson’s Song of Freedom. Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) was one of the most important Australian painters of the twentieth-century’).
The first poem, ‘1 To My Brother Ray’, has, as well, an unfinished feel to it, but contains some notable images and phrases, such as ‘Memory is a curious country/ with many a wellplanned street’ and ‘cloud swags in the sky’. There’s a conceit of inauthentic capitalist society being tantamount to a pretend-reality or film-set (a theme often played on by many anti-capitalist or Communist poets of the Thirties during which Lindsay first found his poetical feet):
And that indeed we should expect
with every actor a ghost,
the prompter longdead in his box
and all the stage-sets lost,
no clocks at all left in the world
and Time laid to our cost.
The phrase ‘no clocks’ appears here for the second time, having also appeared in ‘Song of a Refugee from the Twenties’ (e.g. ‘Our time is ticking in no clocks’), and this seems to chime again with Lindsay’s preoccupation with the illusory nature of time. In the brief two-versed ‘2 To My Brother Philip’ Lindsay meditates on the poet’s twilight with a nod to Auden’s phrase in allusion to the nature of revolution, a “change of heart”:
A poet, at the hasty start,
may be arrogant enough
to want no ears for his call,
or nothing less than all.
And yet with a change of heart
in the experience of love,
may learn, when the song’s been sung,
that he wants no more at the end
than one or two called friend
who speak the same mother-tongue.
‘3 To My Father Norman Alone in the Blue Mountains’ is without doubt the most successful and powerful poem in this sequence, more finished than its predecessors, and a worthy lyrical peak for them to slope up to. It is written directly to the father from whom Lindsay was estranged for most of his adult life, who buried himself away at their native home in Australia and appeared to remain disinterested in his son’s foreign exploits, political convictions and experiences, and literary accomplishments:
Though you in your hermitage
of cold and scornful stone,
of tranquil and ruthless light,
refuse to accept these pages,
what other name can I write
over the arch of the ruin
made my sole monument?
Your rejecting word I ignore
and call up your name once more,
though you will pay no heed
though you will never read
these words in your mountain-lair.
So long for you alone
I wrote, all my thoughts I bent
on you as friend and foe
so long, no name I know
but yours for this empty space
now Ray and Phil are both gone
and the spiralling fury of Time
bores remorselessly on.
As a bitter tribute then take
these pages that strip me bare
in death’s thin bleakening ray.
Turn for a moment I say
turn from your obdurate place
in that clarity of stone,
that terrible folly of light,
turn for a moment this way
your abstracted face.
This poem is genuinely moving and sad to read knowing the difficult relationship between son and father –the latter depicted not for the first time by Lindsay as the paternal anathema, to all the son came to believe in and cherish throughout his adulthood; his father remains the ‘abstracted face’ always turned away from him, from his life and, in Lindsay’s view, from all life.
‘In the Wild Surf – to my daughter Helen, on the beach at St Ives, Cornwall’ is a quite beautiful fatherly lyric, a wistful autumnal self-threnody expressing a sense of impotence and loss of influence over a clearly questioning daughter. It includes some enchanting natural images such as ‘The billow arches and turns/ in a cavern of tumbling gold’, the Thomasian ‘There by the greendark rocks,/ as the tide ebbs out, there swings/ the undertow’. It also bears some comparison to the similarly autumnal romanticism of David Gascoyne’s late oeuvre (quite a stark but more pastel contrast to his earlier surrealism). Lindsay the father’s tone is particularly wizened, disillusioned, and as morosely resigned as the belatedly enlightened King Lear, concluding, a bit like Socrates (“All I know is that I know nothing”):
I can do nothing to save,
counsel, or tell what I know.
The closing verse a beautifully wistful expression of coming to terms with age and one’s own oncoming demise –such a contrast to the younger Lindsay’s carpe diems and affirmations of the moment as paramount and time-transcendent:
Out of one depth curls the wave,
from another you rise up clear
and meet the bright dangerous day.
Cut off on the barren sand,
I can only love you from here
where the wind blows my words away.
This verse, with its dextrous use of rhyme, rhythm and sublime message, has a strongly Yeatsian quality about it –and what a closing line!
‘On Nuclear Physics and the Resolving Truth Beyond It – to my son Philip’, composed in random rhyme, begins with some imagery from Lewis Carroll to get its point of the ‘concrete universal’ and the consanguinity of all humans across:
How take the world to pieces, then
put it alive together again?
The problem’s crashed upon us all
since Humpty Dumpty had his fall
crackt from the bumptious abstract wall –
since consciousness of human fate
made us feel direly separate
yet merged with something far more great,
our lives a fragmentary part,
yet pulses of a single heart.
The ‘concrete universal’ is evoked in the trope ‘the seamless unity/ both ultimate and immediate’. Then follows a rejection of any celestial or metaphysical conceptions, such as an afterlife:
But now the breaking point is near
and we must use our better wits,
not merely count more bits and bits
in treacherous ghost-infinities,
a world where nothing human fits.
Lindsay chooses the ‘harder goal’ of agnosticism, or atheism; this is a courageous course to take, and here the poet attempts to fuse the principles of physics with Marxian existentialism (reminding one of the eclectic works of polymath Christopher Caudwell –e.g. Illusion and Reality – A Study of the Sources of Poetry; The Crisis in Physics etc.); but this is a train of thought which hits its own rocks of irony in that atomism and Holism are, at least in the disciplines of sociology and occupational theory, diametric opposites of one another, yet Lindsay is here attempting to implausibly fuse them into one:
…grasp the method that will bind
both vision and analysis
in steady focus, till we see
the quarrelling aspects one,
into new wholes, the structures struck
from the extending symmetries
where number breeds and plays its role
ever more complex in division,
but under unity’s clear control.
No need for atomising fear.
Courage will give us back our luck.
Nevertheless, the poet is adamant that ‘There is no forward way but this’.
‘Remembering Robert Kett – To Meta’ has some striking natural imageries and strikingly alliterative use of descriptive language:
Still earth is there. Even though windows close,
the wind hangs sprawling in the apple-boughs.
Now Autumn thuds with falls, the hedges thin,
and the winged seeds go sweeping by or spin.
Beet-clumps are grey beside the plaited rick,
The chimney-starling gives his chuckling click…
Lindsay asserts again is essential materialism/atheism/humanism with unrepentant conviction: ‘Life is enough. The heart with sweetness breaks/ and all a dusk of nightingales awakes’. The eponymous Robert Kett was a 16th century yeoman who led a revolt against the fenced enclosures pitched by rich landowners; it is not altogether clear, however, how exactly this fairly obscure rebellious figure fits into what initially appears to be a verse-statement on the sanctity of life as something sufficient in itself to satisfy human kind without recourse to mystical or metaphysical concepts:
For beauty’s hush is laired in memory’s shell
and the whorled past from which our musicks swell
is cavernous with death. All roses start
our of the dark where burns a dead girl’s heart.
I am awakened by the dreaming dead
and dare not ask who shares my tumbled bed;
to murdered lovers all my joys I owe.
My heart’s alive four hundred years ago.
The poem continues to a swift close nonetheless, while one is left wondering exactly how Robert Kett fits into it –though perhaps there is some tenuous symbolic link between trampling the fences of enclosures and challenging but ultimately accepting the mental enclosures of the human mind as the ultimate sentient consciousness in a purely material universe (in which case, this poem could be interpreted as counter-revolutionary, almost arguing that we should accept our lot and limitations and renege from the deceptively ‘greener grass’ of ‘the other side of the fence’?):
Life is enough and gold the Earth remains,
beyond our depths, in all her spendthrift grains.
Death is Life’s heart-of-hearts. The pulse that drives
breaks as it stores: one death is various lives.
Rich with its roots entwined among the dead
the red rose salves the wood from which it’s bred….
Nevertheless, there is in this closing verse something of Lindsay’s earlier agnostic preoccupations with time and mortality, his attempts to resolve this through a curious form of Buddhist-style mystical humanism and ‘mindfulness’ or ‘moment-ness’ towards an acceptance of death and of its ubiquity in all things, until death is, almost contradictorily, the essence of life itself: ‘Death is Life’s heart-of-hearts’.
The penultimate poem, ‘The Fetish Thing’, is a more direct expression of Das Kapital’s core motif of the ‘commodity-fetishism’ of consumer-capitalism. Here Lindsay emphatically blames capitalism for the root-causes of all human misery, poverty, suffering and conflict (though one also suspects there is some veiled subtext relating religion, or Christianity, to capitalism, almost as a kind of sacramental-fetishism):
Marx struggled all his days to free
our minds and hearts from slavish lies,
so we might live in harmony
with nature and our fellows here.
Look round and what a world we see.
Each day more mad divisions rise
out of that blinding hate and fear
deep-rooted in the Fetish Thing.
Lindsay then brings the abstracts of mathematics and physics into the melting-pot, deploying the physics term ‘fissioning’:
And what if we who boast his name
in our resistance, soon or late
harden and find the truth become
a closed-in system, a mere sum
of this and that, and flatly succumb
to the arithmetic of fissioning hell:
truth that should be a reckless flame
to burn and break all barriers built
between us and the sacred spring
of life upbubbling in ceaseless change.
That final phrase also echoes Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’. Lindsay then asks the reader, riddlingly and sage-like: ‘Whose then is the greater guilt?’ The answer is slightly garbled, ambiguous and, surprisingly, somewhat dubious of itself in the perilously Nietzschean train of thought it is heading in:
Yes, how displace the men of hate,
the men of fear, if we as well
lose the quick secret, spoil the spell
that links us with the unlivening whole,
so that, estranged, we cease to range
the hills of hope, the heights of vision,
the depths of struggle, and grasp no more
the suddenly naked human core,
its terrible and exalting force.
With those last couple of lines we are made to meditate with dread on the possible existential or even solipsistic ramifications; we are reminded at once of Eliot’s ‘hollow men/ …stuffed men/ Leaning together’ in the howling winds of a purely material void. In these respects, this poem almost feels like a colophon for Lindsay’s lifelong philosophical preoccupations, and perhaps one he did not predict himself ending on. And yet he doesn’t end on this: instead, Lindsay forces the train of thought into an unexpected clearing where he might attempt to have his ‘cake and eat it’ ontologically speaking, by optimistically focusing on human immanence and the timelessness and deathlessness of the moment, of the now:
Come turn away
into the full involving day,
accept the piercing interplay
of opposites, accept at last
the way that stormtosst life holds fast
its clear and unpredictable course,
its lost and ever-present goal.
The final poem in this exceptional and hugely important gathering of the prime works of Jack Lindsay is simply titled ‘It Has Happened’ (dedicated to one Patricia Moberley). This is a final resoundingly defiant and triumphant verse-statement as to the paradox and circularity of time and (collective) consciousness, and the inalienable birthright and sanctity of a purely material, and mortal, human existence, one which would reach its supposed zenith of authenticity if only we could relinquish our unhelpful and unnecessary fantasies and phantasms as to some intangible verity above earthly existence which, to atheists such as Lindsay, combined into little more than a primitive and vestigial appendix of the human consciousness:
It has happened all before, and yet
it has all to happen. So it seems.
Darker grows the maniac threat
and richer swell the answering dreams.
Just past our straining fingertips
it lies. And that’s the very thing
they said two thousand years ago,
broken, with hope unslackening.
At every gain, away it slips.
In struggle, entire and strong it grows;
the bonds of brotherhood hold fast.
Someday the treacherous gap will close
and we’ll possess the earth at last.
It simply remains to say that my prior ignorance as to the prolific and hugely important oeuvre of Jack Lindsay is of considerable embarrassment to me given both my belated admiration of his exceptional poetic output and my recent amateur scholasticism on the Thirties which only seemed to pick up on a very modest and compendious footnote to his life and, as I’ve now discovered, prodigious contribution to the politics, polemic and poetry of his period (spanning an epic fifty years!). But now that I’ve had the opportunity to acquaint myself at length with what is considered the cream of his vast body of poetry, thanks to this comprehensively compiled eye-opener of a posthumous Selected Poems, I now feel greatly enriched by what to my mind is one of the most important canons of mid-to-late twentieth century to have been exhumed for contemporary –excuse the term– poetic consumption.
And it has indeed been a most hearty meal; a deeply replenishing poetic repast. Andy Croft and Smokestack are to be congratulated for bringing together the many tentacles of this unjustly and inexplicably overlooked poet master craftsman. Lindsay, at his best, is a poet whom, in my opinion, more than stands up against some of the most celebrated poets of his time, such as Auden, Spender, MacNiece, Gascoyne or Macleod. In Lindsay’s oeuvre, and in keeping with his own philosophies, we have something of a converging of some of these other ‘voices’ in the vastly varied lapping waves of Lindsay’s vat of verse.
This capacity to take upon himself some of the poetic personalities of his contemporaries, but without ever any sense of pastiche, impersonation or imitation, lends his Muse something of a mediumistic quality, so hyper-sensitive as it is not only the now-ness of his times and their events, but also to the responses to these of those operating within his own artistic medium. Lindsay was supremely aware of what Harold Bloom termed the ‘anxiety of influence’ (title of his book, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 1973), as well as of the consanguinity of language and thought; and he had the humility to put into practice such concepts and notions in a poetry that manages to complement personal experiential expression and responses with those of other contemporaries, making for something almost certainly approaching a true communist poetics.
Who are the English? – Selected Poems of Jack Lindsay 1935-1981 is a majestic book, an important book, and an indispensible one for all students, scholars and lovers of political, polemical and radical mid-twentieth century poetry. It is a landmark publication and one which will undoubtedly once and for all put this major Anglo-Australian Communist poet on the map of posterity. Highly recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2014