C(harles) H(ubert) Sisson Essay - Critical Essays

Sisson, C(harles) H(ubert)

Sisson, C(harles) H(ubert) 1914–

A British poet, novelist, and essayist, Sisson often satirizes modern British society in his poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The Trojan Ditch] as a whole records the development of a poet whose deepest concerns have been slow to find voice.

The aspect of mind Sisson chiefly presents is that of intellect reflecting on existence. Bilious in temperament, he is given to conceptual formulations, satirical or self-critical. He writes with stringent force but his clarity can be deceptive: he uses without warning various degrees of irony, from deadpan ambiguity to open derision, his light lines skim like Marvell's deep questionings, and his latest work is both complex and obscure.

Sisson classicises. Having suppressed his juvenilia and returned to the writing of verse after submitting to the discipline of prose, he accepts at first the constraints of convention. Conditions he resists but cannot disown reflect themselves in many iambic movements and an emphatic address: diction is at times violent and the rhythms thump. There appears to remain the relic of a belief that poetry consists in the making of remarkable statements; some of his statements are odd. Fully loaded, personal utterances are liable to go off bang, others rattle along in intellectual doggerel. A stern conscience and a knack of abstracting produce however some excellent epigrams…. Metrically unadventurous, Sisson is very sensitive to slight variations of tone and he has made some interesting experiments in style. Strong clear statements expressing only their own insufficiency, he at length reaches out to vagueness.

The application of traditional forms to present purposes, dear to English habit, succeeds to the extent that it introduces into the model handed down some element not apparently at variance with it but actually different. Such being the process of language itself, the work of the poet is mainly conservative and selective. It is by imitation and translation that Sisson has elaborated his technique and gradually developed a loadbearing style. (pp. 45-6)

Kenneth Cox, "The Poetry of C. H. Sisson," in Agenda, Autumn, 1974, pp. 45-9.

C. H. Sisson resembles Larkin in one respect, that his satire clearly springs from an unresolved personal dilemma. He is his own problem. Whereas in Larkin, however, one feels that it would not be profitable, nor even possible, for him to explore this dilemma, in Sisson it is the intricate exploration of it that finally vindicates the work. I say 'finally' because part of the dumbness of which Sisson speaks is the sense that he is not always in control of his own gift. Much of the work [in Collected Poems & Selected Translations] seems to generate itself in rather improvisational fashion, and only slowly to move towards its real shape. (p. 114)

One wonders … if it was wise to print Sisson's work back to front, putting these late poems first. The early poems are very much of a piece with them, but far more accessible, compressed lyric statements that contain their tensions without needing to explain them…. [The] issue of plainness, first raised by Sisson in connection with his Catullus translations …, seems to have been a complete red herring—not least for Sisson himself. What's so plain about Catullus, anyway? (p. 115)

Plainness serves Sisson ill in his complex middle period (where, again, the reverse order of printing induces vertigo as themes unroll backwards). His absorbing theme, the relationship of soul and body, particularly the extent to which the body governs the soul, making any concept of identity dubious, is attacked time and again; other themes flow into it, the extent to which 'mind' is inherited through culture, and so whether place can be said to have 'mind': but the whole complex is finally cracked open, not by plain statement, but by the most intricate artifice, in his remarkable long poem 'The Discarnation'…. For the first two sections, 'The Discarnation' looks as if it is going to be a major work, a twentieth century Essay On Man. It is a serious loss that towards the end of section two it should adopt, without adequately countering, the terms of Freudian analysis, developing along lines Sisson himself doesn't accept: 'much and falsely simplified'. Thereafter it degenerates into Sisson the satirist, which is his lesser self.

At his best, Sisson is clearly an important poet, concerned to set the received unity of poetic thought against the disintegration of the modern mind. (pp. 115-16)

Roger Garfitt, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), October-November, 1974.