Charles Tomlinson Essay - Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles (Vol. 6)

Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles (Vol. 6)

Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles 1927–

Tomlinson, a distinguished English poet, is said to be influenced by Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and especially by Wallace Stevens. Calvin Bedient considers his most salient attribute originality, his chief theme "the fineness of relationships," noting that to read Tomlinson "is continually to sound; to meet with what lies outside the self in a simultaneous grace of vision and love." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[There] is a scruple in Tomlinson which is quite alien to Betjeman and Porter …, and which clarifies the whole question of the choices available to British poets in this century. Against the assertion that poetry is impossible, that poetry does not matter, one can easily assert that poetry is a matter of swaggering enough (there are all kinds of swagger), of defending the old against the new, the private life against history. But only very thin poetry comes of this—additional proof that poetry is hardly possible, that only "poetry" is. The most interesting modern poets, explicitly or implicitly, have said something else: that the possibility or impossibility of poetry will depend on the quality of the attention we bring to the world we wish to render in language. Not the size or the scope of the attention, and not the intrinsic properties of the themes or objects it seizes on, but the quality of the attention itself: the degree of care. This, it seems to me, is the message of Yeats as much as of Eliot, of Hardy as much as of Pound; and it has been deciphered as well by Philip Larkin as by Ted Hughes. The morality and the humanity of the best of modern British poetry is a respect for the world out there, beyond the ghosts and nightmares of our own minds, and this respect is nowhere better represented than in the work of Charles Tomlinson. Fact has its proper plenitude, Tomlinson [has said]…. And not only facts are to be respected, but also more elusive realities…. "The Impalpabilities," like many of Tomlinson's poems, seems to me to answer in practice the nagging question that lurks behind so much poetry written since Symbolism struck away the safe old objective world: how to link the mind to the external universe except through metaphor, how to make metaphors without exploiting and betraying that universe, without robbing all landscapes of their own reality? In Tomlinson the sea, music, houses, countrysides, evening light, the arms of a human body, and many things besides, are all borrowed but not used: what they evoke is something that they too are. (pp. 48-9)

Michael Wood, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Charles Tomlinson is not self-regarding. His worst side is shown in his occasional attempts to be chummy, to make us warm to him; he takes on easy targets—the rich, upper-class accents, a fictional critic of Beethoven. His best side, amply illustrated in The Way In, lies in his ability to mix observation and conceit. The English landscape, Midland towns, winter scenes—he has indeed a rather wintry talent. The rhythms of his verse seem purposely flat, the lines oddly arranged, the images bleak. Some of his shorter poems … seem like stray stanzas from a longer work…. One expects something to happen, something to start up, but nothing does…. And in the longer works, too, one often feels left in the lurch. There is an element missing here, though what exactly it is I do not know: a shade more passion, a touch of ambition, an element of risk. Perhaps it boils down to a question of scope. Here is a striking beginning of a poem:

        Light catches the sudden metal of the streams:
        Their granite captive is stirring in its chains.

Yes, you say, that's good—go on. But that's all there is. That is in fact the whole poem. (p. 833)

James Fenton, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 6, 1974.

Tomlinson's language … has too polished a cultural glow. Writing of his humble origin, and returns, Tomlinson seems too urbane; his language and feelings look as if they had rubbed uncomfortably against an unattractive subject, and been obliged to assume fastidiousness….

Tomlinson, while he possesses memory, is, I feel, further from his subject than the turbulence of the "Manscape" section of poems [in The Way In] would have us believe. There is a certain revulsion about his response—"mannerless", "acrid." Between Tomlinson and his beginnings is too much faith in what he has now become, which prevents him getting at those beginnings, as the poems to some extent make clear.

          I thought it once
          Too desolate, diminished and too tame
          To be the foundation for anything

he says of the single landscape his life carries with him. The dilemma is moving, and important. You will find few admissions of the fact that most of the younger writers tend to come from the sort of background not previously associated with "literature." Tomlinson suffers the handicap of his generation in that he finds it difficult to admit his own origin to himself. It's as if … he thought it would be an unwelcome intrusion on the cultural register of a poem to talk of something so "social", so immediate, so rewarding of exploring in poems. (p. 86)

Tomlinson appears to profess that he has no obligation other than to be careful, and, in the ways of poetic technique, "accurate." Despite his poem on "Class"—typically English, this; it's about pronunciation—or his poem on "The Rich", Tomlinson imparts the sensation that he's classless. There is too high an estimate put on beauty, artistry, poise and imagination as virtues which help to salvage an identity from the preconceptions society generates and perpetuates. Tomlinson "got out" easier than he can get back "in." That seems evident from "Manscapes."

Art and its problems don't lend themselves to populist solutions; and the term "relevance" is a piece of canting indecency. Yet when the imagination is drawn towards the social, especially when this involves what is most personal to a writer—his beginnings—it can't expect to survive on its own terms. It has to bend a little, admit generosity, modify the centuries of privilege and exclusiveness upon which it was erected as part of the culture of some, and not of the many. Before he sought his "way in", Tomlinson built up exactly such an aesthetic barrier between himself and what he recently sought to re-enter. It proved intractable before such a consciousness.

And at the same time there is an admirable seriousness of purpose in "Manscapes", the only section of The Way In I've chosen, perversely, to discuss. These poems are full of an excellence of phrase, a sensuous delineation of feeling and particulars. This is also true of [Donald Davie's] The Shires. But when both poets touch on identifiable realities, they become as "middlebrow" as Tomlinson has described Larkin. It gives me immense pleasure to say so. Tomlinson, of his new urban subjects, says:

            It will need more than talk and trees
            To coax a style from these disparities.

We know that. It will in fact need identification, politics, and the will to show more generous involvement than the past weight and establishment of Tomlinson's career can probably allow. But I hope not. Both Davie and Tomlinson have subjects available, through which they could blaze and scorch. (p. 87)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), March, 1975.

Charles Tomlinson is a poet of an unerring and acute sensitivity, capable of startling perceptions of the underlying patterns which inform all things, central or eccentric. (p. 133)

[The Way In] is a chronicle of the limitations of the imagination … [and] of the limitations of reality…. For Tomlinson is not quite certain of the structures of perception, and it is their uncertain stability that his poetry celebrates. His skill is to catch in words that which is constantly withdrawing, or disintegrating, however insistently it returns or reforms again, and in whatever guise. (p. 134)

Not by any means the least of Tomlinson's gifts is his rich and comforting humour, ordered with irony and wit, confident with compassion, announcing a wise consolation to all…. Charles Tomlinson, "betrayed into verse," is one of modern poetry's most talented martyrs:

      Season of mists and migraines, rich catarrhs,
      Pipes in the public library throbbed and hissed
      Against your advent.

Heating systems and critics have all too much in common. I for one should like to shiver my delight into print. (p. 135)

J. E. Chamberlin, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975.

[For] an American taste at least, many of [the poems in "The Way In"] are too self-conscious (notably the title poem) and too complacently rhymed…. If only Tomlinson would rest content with his instinct; but his intellect keeps breaking in, asking him to do the well-made thought, the conclusive conclusion, the rhymed couplet, the satisfied wrap-up. It is, I suppose, no crime in itself to be explicit: but in a poet of the implicit, explicitness seems a desperate violation, a sob of Puccini in a moment of Mozart. Tomlinson's scenes—all glinting surface and shimmering suggestion—can bear autobiographical statement well enough: but what they positively can't endure, what becomes, I think, a blasphemy of their particular realm of the sacred, is tidily helpful allegorical explaining-to-the-obtuse. And that tidiness mars the best poems of this revealing book. (p. 4)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975.

Courtly, crystalline and fastidiously geometrical as much in [The Way In] is, a new movement is nonetheless detectable in its earlier pieces, as Tomlinson confronts his own social experience in a more direct and vulnerable way than ever before…. [Raw] experience is still for the most part enclosed and compacted within a latinate, mandarin dialect, stilled and appropriated by scrupulous refinements of style—… but it's nonetheless expressive of a new intention…. And although the resolute objectivism is still there, it's more obviously interlaced with human sympathies than in some of Tomlinson's previous work; there's even, believe it or not, a humorous poem.

Nevertheless, Tomlinson's poetic strengths continue to thrive on serious limitations—limitations which, given their recurrence from poem to poem, he seems to have accepted. What distinguishes his landscapes from most contemporary Nature poetry is his unerring perception of structure; the studied intimacy of natural detail conveys a sort of sensuousness, but this is held within a consciously abstractive, plotting and ritualising language which charts the patterns, currents and strata of a scene, the invisible field of forces within which observable phenomena may be located…. (p. 76)

Tomlinson's 'structuralism' has the strengths of the intellectual movement which can be more precisely given that name: a proper displacement of Romantic subjectivism, a valuable poetic equivalent of scientific rigour, a productively synchronic 'read(ing) the whole'. Yet just as structuralism proper needs to be integrated into more encompassing historical analyses, so Tomlinson's poetry seems too often limited to a negatively cleansing, therapeutic enterprise, a ground-clearing operation on which a truly major poetry could be, but hasn't yet been, built…. [There] doesn't seem enough free play, enough conflict and friction, between the forms and contents of Tomlinson's poetry to generate the dynamic which would carry them beyond the subtly organised but essentially static shape of their still lives.

What Charles Tomlinson presumably aims for is a Nature poetry which in the very objectivity of its perceptions seems allusively charged with human significances…. (p. 77)

Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 3, 1975.

[One should be aware of] Tomlinson's dread of the spiritual obliteration represented by the concepts of space and silence, and of his instinct for self-preservation which asserts itself in an urgent abstracting of form and design, wherein Seeing is Believing because both are dependent upon the self and its certainties. Like Wordsworth, Tomlinson "watches and receives" with a poet's hungry need for spiritual sustenance, and in his creativity he is "fostered alike by beauty and by fear." His poetry is characterized by a humble receptiveness, and individual poems chronicle with Comus-like delight the maintaining of his imaginative purity. He affects a Wordsworthian uncertainty about "whether it were by peculiar grace,/A leading from above, a something given," but when "A Given Grace" does come, the poet is ready…. The … paradox that the poems "speak, as it were, in ignorance of themselves" is what Tomlinson has relished throughout his career. His poems are genuinely "occasional," songs of celebration of something other than themselves. (pp. 295-96)

J. E. Chamberlin, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1975.

Tomlinson writes "I have lived in a single landscape" (At Stoke), but one may make the more general point that he is a poet who lives in landscapes rather than anything else; describing, recording, and inevitably informing the objects of his care with his precise and happily unboring sensibility. Many of the poems in [The Way In and Other Poems] are given over to "preserving" in verse changing landscapes: places and the life lived there….

"No-one has recorded the place" Tomlinson adds, increasingly aware of himself as poet-historian. In Dates: Penkhull New Road he says:

      It took time to convince me that I cared
      For more than beauty: I write to rescue
      What is no longer there—absurd
      A place should be more fragile than a book.

Absurd perhaps, though not without its compensations when Tomlinson has written the book. Those lines also reveal the increasing generosity and feeling of his poetry…. (p. 66)

There are many patches of wry and delightful humour, and a number of the poems have nothing to do with landscapes (such as that pointed gem Beethoven Attends the C Minor Seminar)…. The Way In is full of good—at times exquisite—poetry…. (p. 67)

Penelope Palmer, in Agenda (copyright 1975 by Agenda), Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1975.