Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles (Vol. 4)
Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles 1927–
Tomlinson is a British poet whose work is characterized, according to William Cookson, by "an intelligence of eye and ear," and whose poems "fix moments of heightened perception." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Aside from two volumes of translations, [American Scenes, and Other Poems] is Charles Tomlinson's fifth collection of poems. It was in his second collection, The Necklace (1955), under the influence of Wallace Stevens, that he first found a style to suit his particular poetic temper and preoccupations. Taking other American poets as his models—Marianne Moore and Williams—he has since progressively extended his technical range to give fuller expression to his personal voice and vision. In the construction of the moral and mental framework that supports his poetic insights the strongest single influence seems to have been D. H. Lawrence—for example, Lawrence on self-consciousness and mental idealism. But in their intellectual rigour and a 'metaphysical' quality his poems have also something in common, though it is less easily illustrated, with Laura Riding's work.
What most impresses a reader of Tomlinson's successive collections is the deeply pondered character—and the consistency—of his reading of experience. He began life as a painter and in his poems he feels through what he sees; and it is prior training in a visual medium that probably accounts for his bias away from the romantic, subjective interpretation of reality: trust in the act of perception has led him, in considering the relation between subject and object, the person and what is external to him, to lay the emphasis on the object and the external. His poems have the air of laying bare the essentials for an objective, impartial view of the world. The perceptual ideal is an image for a moral ideal: Tomlinson celebrates the eye that sees coolly and precisely, that sees objects and events in all their relations, and that orders what it sees; which is to celebrate not only right seeing but right thinking and right feeling. The ideal is classical but includes also a modern scepticism: the objective world cannot be fully possessed by the mind, and so to apprehend it we approach it by comparison—'naked nature/Clothed by comparison alone' and thus 'related' ('Glass Grain', Seeing is Believing). Relating things to their likes is a strategy designed to represent them in their totality. If reality has a central meaning, then it is inaccessible to the mind, but the clue to it is that it embraces contraries, and to register in one's art these contraries is the objective procedure, one also adopted by Tomlinson, that brings one to the point of entry. And this, too, is a way of seeing life whole. Relations and Contraries (1951) was the title of his first volume; they have ever since remained central to his investigation of reality.
The development his poems have shown is in the direction of greater humanity. Whereas, for instance, the poems of The Necklace were still lifes—objects and moments whose 'facets of copiousness' were presented separately to the eye of the reader, analyzed in a taut, vibrant verse, those of Seeing is Believing (1960) were organized in the sentences of careful conversation, words and rhythms pinpointing every nuance of meaning and inflection of voice. The poems of A Peopled Landscape (1963) were human in a different sense: previously, as Tomlinson has pointed out, the things he wrote about—houses, cities, walls, landscapes—were already saturated in human presence and traditions, and this was his point in writing about them, but now people themselves move to the centre. A Peopled Landscape showed yet another development in style, several of the poems having the look of Williams's and Marianne Moore's poems. In 1961,… Tomlinson referred to this technique as the 'experiments of Cummings and Williams of letting the look of the poem on the page prompt and regulate through the eye the precise tone of the voice'. Its usefulness for Tomlinson, then, was that it reflected even more faithfully the cadences of the speaking voice (humanizing his verse in yet another way), at once increasing the possibilities of precision and enabling the poet to unbend from a posture of steely formality.
The verse of American Scenes continues in the direction laid down in A Peopled Landscape: movement and line-division function primarily as pointers to voice inflection; the verse reflects exactly speech stress and the patterns that emerge, picked out also by assonances and internal rhymes, are the patterns of the argument, the symmetries and emphases that belong to careful, ordered thought. The values and the conception of reality that informed the previous three volumes are affirmed with the same assurance in these poems. The attitude of tough resilience exemplified in all his poems and the theme of many of them finds expression in now familiar terms and imagery:
again you bend
joint and tendon to encounter
the wind's force and leave behind
the nameless stones, the snow-shrouds
of a waste season….
The experiments of Williams strongly influenced the form of poems in A Peopled Landscape; it is from the experiments of Williams's successors that his American and Mexican poems have benefitted. The results are a decrease in the pedantries of meticulous analysis and a greater reliance on the simplicities of the (apparently) casual statement and the unsymbolic anecdote. The subtlety of the poem's thought is there in the satisfyingly exact notation of voice-movement and in the juxtaposition of facts the connections between which are unstated but 'add up' to a flavour that cannot be defined because it is the flavour of life in all its fortuitousness.
Michael Kirkham, "Negotiations," in Essays in Criticism, July, 1967, pp. 367-74.
Just as an actor gets type-cast, a poet in our literary climate is all too liable to go on being discussed in the same terms that are applied to him in his first set of reviews. "Painterly," "visual," "microscopic"—the words were relevant to Tomlinson's 1955 collection The Necklace, but while he is no less precise an observer than he was, he has developed so much since then that to go on thudding out the same adjectives is to tell a small part of the truth.
The position he took in The Necklace is defined in its first two lines:
Reality is to be sought, not in concrete,
But in space made articulate
In the poems which follow and in his second book Seeing is Believing, the basic assumption is that clarity of vision is the prerequisite for an adequate grasp on reality. "When the truth is not good enough/We exaggerate." The poems record and advocate the discovery and practice of a discipline by which distortion can be avoided. The poems observe not only the surfaces of things, but the play of light and shade in the spaces between them….
This is poetry for all the senses, but its concern is to wake them up, not to put them to sleep with facile gratification….
Instead of asserting himself subjectively, Tomlinson uses himself as a medium through which he realises natural life more vividly than any poet since Hopkins. No one writing today is more sensitive than Tomlinson to the turn of the seasons and though he most often opts for a winter setting, his attitude of reverent gratitude in face of the natural landscape which surrounds us and his keen awareness of the processes of self-renewal which are constantly and copiously at work in it put him emotionally at the antipodes of Beckett and the writers whose preoccupations are one-sidedly with decay, the gradual failing of the individual body's faculties….
But it is only in The Way of a World that the assertion of the human will comes into the foreground of the serious poems. "Assassin" is by far the most dramatic poem Tomlinson has yet written….
In "Prometheus" Tomlinson not only sets up a more complex interrelationship between the visual, aural, and tactual references than before, but he develops a new rhythm, no less subtle but less reticent, more committed than in the earlier poems. Altogether this is a less private voice, a controlled rhetoric which claims and commands a wider space, ranges over a more impressive variety of tones than ever before.
Ronald Hayman, in Encounter, December, 1970, pp. 72-3.
"Civic and close-packed" is how Charles Tomlinson describes a town in one of his new poems [in Written on Water], and like many a Tomlinson phrase it covertly characterizes the poem itself as much as its subject. Flexing, modulating, compacting, interchanging—these stately abstractions refer at once to qualities of natural process and to the poetic structure which elicits them, so that the poems enact an epistemological harmony of mind and matter, becoming the structure of what they see. They are well-bred, elaborate mental artifices but also pared, laconic statements, cavalier in their civilized formality but puritan in their relentless sobriety. Resolute objectivizing creates, paradoxically, an impression of dense, subtle interiority, so that the poetry seems saturated with speculation even in its least apparently reflective, most rigorously descriptive moments….
One wonders if Mr. Tomlinson's world isn't a bit too harmonic. Certain conflicts, potential contradictions even, do seem implicit in his epistemology—that the mind hunts for forms in an evanescent world, for instance—but they tend not to be developed. Instead, motion and stasis, natural flux and aesthetic structure, "presentness" and melting time seem everywhere to form agreeable marriages, in a world of almost-suspended animation. On the other hand, the fine concluding poem "Movements" does betray—more candidly and explicitly than in most of Mr. Tomlinson's previous work—something of the moral tentativeness which underlies the dry self-composure. Here, in what may be an important new departure, problems of believing as well as seeing are tackled in a more open, richly meditative way than before.
"From Waterways to Soupy Streams," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), October 20, 1972, p. 1249.
Charles Tomlinson is the most considerable English poet to have made his way since the Second World War. There is more to see along that way, more to meditate, more solidity of achievement, more distinction of phrase, more success as, deftly turning, hand and mind execute the difficult knot that makes the poem complete, than in the work of any of Tomlinson's contemporaries. It is true that the way is strait; but Tomlinson would have it so. For his is a holding action: he is out to save the world for the curious and caring mind. And if he is narrow, he is only so narrow as a searching human eye and a mind that feeds and reflects on vision—an eye that to everything textured, spatial, neighbouring, encompassing, humanly customary, and endlessly and beautifully modulated by light, dusk, weather, the slow chemistry of years, comes like a cleansing rain—as also like a preserving amber. The quality everywhere present in Tomlinson's poetry is a peculiarly astringent, almost dry, but deeply meditated love; this is true whether his subject is human beings, houses, lamplight, chestnuts, lakes, or glass. Tomlinson is a poet of exteriority and its human correlatives: the traditional, the universal, the unchangeable, the transparencies of reflection. And he is thus the opposite of a lyric or "confessional" poet. Yet what a mistake it would be to confuse this outwardness with superficiality. To read Tomlinson is continually to sound: to meet with what lies outside the self in a simultaneous grace of vision and love. Tomlinson's chief theme is, in his own phrase, "the fineness of relationships". And though his poetry is in great measure restricted to this theme, the theme itself is an opening and a wideness.
Tomlinson's theme, or his strict relation to it, is one with his originality; and this originality is most salient in his poems on the world's appearances. We have been asked to admire so many poets of "nature" that we can but sigh, or look blank, to hear it announced that still another one has come along; and we will greet with scepticism any claims to originality. But Tomlinson is unmistakably an original poet. There is in him, it is true, a measure of Wordsworth: the athomeness in being as against doing, the wise passivity, the love of customariness, and what Pater spoke of as Wordsworth's "very fine apprehension of the limits within which alone philosophical imaginings have any place in true poetry". Both poets awaken, moreover, in Shelley's phrase, "a sort of thought in sense". But how different in each is the relation of sense to thought. In Wordsworth, sense fails into thought. Nature strikes Wordsworth like a bolt; it is the charred trunk that he reflects upon. His thought looks back to sense and its elation, hungering. In Tomlinson, by contrast, the mind hovers over what the eye observes; the two are coterminus. Together, they surprise a sufficiency in the present; and if passion informs them, it is a passion for objectivity. For the most part, Wordsworth discovers himself in nature—it is this, of course, that makes him a Romantic poet. Tomlinson, on the other hand, discovers the nature of nature: a classical artist, he is all taut, responsive detachment.
The sufficiency (or something very near it) of the spatial world to Tomlinson's eye, mind, and heart, the gratefulness of appearances to a sensibility so unusual as his, at once radically receptive and restrained, separates him from such poets as D. H. Lawrence and Wallace Stevens—though the latter, indeed, exerted a strong early influence. This marked spiritual contentment—which makes up the message and quiet power and healing effluence of Tomlinson's work—[is] conveniently illustrated by one of his shorter poems, "The Gossamers."…
An ascetic of the eye, Tomlinson pushes poetry closer to natural philosophy than it has ever been before—and at the same time proselytises for fine relationships with space, writes and persuades in earnestness, if not in zeal. Into an area crowded with hedonists, mystics, rapturous aesthetes, he comes equipped with a chaste eye and a mind intent upon exactitude. Nature may indeed be a book; but not until now, say the chaste eye, the intent mind, has the book been more than scanned. The fine print, the difficult clauses, the subtle transitions, the unfamiliar words—Tomlinson will pore over them all. And his language will be as learned and meticulous, his dedication as passionate, his ego as subdued, as that of the true scholar—though mercifully he will also exercise, what few scholars possess, a deft and graceful feeling for form.
The clue to Tomlinson's originality lies in the apparent incongruity between his chosen subject and his temperament. In part, the subject is all the opulence of the visual world—jewelled glass, golden gossamers, fiery clouds. The temperament, by contrast, is strict and chaste, not far from sternness….
Tomlinson looks outward, and what he sees becomes, not himself exactly, but his content. Seeing discovers his limits—but they are the limits of a vase or a window, not of a prison. Indeed, to Tomlinson it is a happy circumstance that the world is "other"; were it identical with the self, there would be no refuge from solitude, nothing to touch as one reaches out…. Observer and observed stand apart, then, as the necessary poles of a substantiated being. The eye is the first of philosophers; seeing turns up the soil of ontology. Beholding thus applies to the spirit a metaphysical balm. The "central calm" of appearances, their very thereness, gives a floor to the world. So Tomlinson walks and looks, and he finds it enough. Philosophically, he begins in nakedness—in nakedness, not in disinheritance; for the scrutinising eye detects no twilight of past dreams of transcendence, only a present wealth of finite particulars, an ever shifting but sharply focused spectacle. In Tomlinson, the spirit, as if ignorant of what once sustained it—Platonic forms, Jehovah, the Life Force, the whole pantheon of the metaphysical mind—finds bliss in trees and stones that are merely trees and stones. And doubtless this implies an especially fine, not a particularly crude, capacity for wonder. Tomlinson is one of the purest instances in literature of the contemplative, as distinct from the speculative, mind. No poet has ever before regarded the intricate tapestry of Space with such patient and musing pleasure, with so little dread or anxiety to retreat through a human doorway or under the vaulted roof of a church. On the other hand, neither has any poet been less inclined to eat of the apples in his Eden. Tomlinson holds up to the tapestry a magnifying glass: he is all absorption, but, courteously, he keeps his place….
Like the hills and seas of his poems, Tomlinson is conservative through and through. If he could, one feels, he would bring all the world to a halt: to the "luminous stasis" of contemplation. The dread he conveys is not of nature, nor even of human nature, but of the "rational" future and its present busy machines—of what is happening to the earth, our host, and to the distinctively human source of our contentment, the filaments of custom that hold us lovingly to place….
Tomlinson's poems have something of the severity of a religious cell. Whitewashed of the self, chill, close-packed as stone walls, they are rooms for intense and selfless meditation. Austerity marks both their language and their movement. The diction has the dryness of exposure to mental weather—though the dryness of living bark, not of stones. Learned and exact, it joins the concrete with academic abstraction….
[His] rhythm … is neither extroverted nor introverted, but emotionally suspended, stilled and poised in meditation…. Reading Tomlinson, one comes instinctively to look for [a] sort of rough yet reliable recurrence. Like the next bead in a rosary, the accentual repetition provides a necessary sense of stability. On the other hand, shifting and uncertain as it is, it discourages complicities of the pulse. It leaves the mind strung, alert, and waiting….
What makes Tomlinson an important poet is partly his originality; but of course it is not his originality that makes him a poet. If his poetry contained observation alone, it would be of no more interest—though of no less interest, either—than a camera set rolling in a snowy field or by the sea. Tomlinson is a poet, in part, because of a consistent, masculine elegance of language, and also in part because of his feeling for rhythm. But mostly he is a poet because he uses, and excites, imagination, and because this imagination is not of a light or gratuitous kind, but steeped in feeling, organic, pregnant with a response to life. Deeply and richly conceived, Tomlinson's poems are neither the mere notations of a stenographic eye, nor cold slabs of reflection; they begin, they vault, and they conclude in feeling….
Tomlinson's imagination attends to observable reality with almost the patience that characterises and gives distinction to his eye. Like a fine atmosphere, it can be gentle to the point of invisibility, so that objects and places, and not the poet himself, seem to be communicants of feeling. And when it does grow dense, it thickens as light thickens, making its objects as well as itself more vivid. Impossible to imagine a closer co-operation between the conceiving mind and the receiving eye. Tomlinson's imagination takes its cues, its colours, its composure, from the Persian carpet of the visual world itself….
If Tomlinson's poems are imaginative, it is almost in their own despite. They are imaginative, so to speak, only because they must be in order to qualify as poetry. Granted their way, so it seems, they would be, instead, only a wondering silence….
Listen to the poems and you will conclude that Tomlinson is but the servant or the guest of appearances. Experience the poems, on the other hand, and you will know that he is something more, and more difficult—namely, their abettor, their harvest, their fulfilment. And this is to say that there is a notable discrepancy, widening at times into a contradiction, between what the poems declare and what they are and do. They speak, as it were, in ignorance of themselves. Thus, though they recommend passivity, it is through their own activity. Though they would teach us to conserve, they themselves are creative and therefore innovative. As they urge us to silence before the multiple voices of space, they impress us with a distinctively human voice. And as they praise nature as our replenishment, they replenish us. So it is that what the right hand gives, the left hand takes away….
The essential confession of Tomlinson's art is, I believe, the essential confession of all art: that man is forced to be, and also needs to be, his own replenishment, perpetually renewed out of himself. So it is that, merely by existing, Tomlinson's poetry completes the real but limited truth—namely, the gratefulness of the world to the senses—whose thousand faces the poems seek out and draw….
It was in his third volume, Seeing is Believing (1960), that Tomlinson first became both the distinct and the distinguished poet that he is today. His first volume, Relations and Contraries (1951), is haunted by Yeats and Blake, and though brilliant in patches, is not of much consequence. Tomlinson next moved a good deal nearer to himself in The Necklace (1955), which ranks, at the least, as a prologue to his real achievement. It zeroes in on the great Tomlinson theme, but vitiates it by a kind of enamelled elegance; it has Stevens's epicurean quality, but not his saving gusto and bravura. Precious in both senses of the word, The Necklace is a book to be valued, but—too beautiful, too exquisite—not to feel at home in: you must park your muddy shoes at the door. The very title of the third volume, Seeing is Believing, suggests a homely improvement over The Necklace. Here the earth takes on some of the earthiness that, after all, becomes it; and the manner is more gritty, rubs more familiarly with the world. In the subsequent two volumes, A Peopled Landscape (1962) and American Scenes (1966), the same manner—at once meticulous, prosaic, and refined (for Tomlinson's early elegance is roughened rather than lost)—is extended, as the titles indicate, to new subjects if not exactly to new themes. It is largely to the Tomlinson of these three volumes and of a fourth, The Way of a World, that I have addressed my remarks, and it is this Tomlinson who, as I began by declaring, has produced the most considerable body of poetry, to date, of any postwar English poet….
Because of both an increased dynamic clarity and a more definite music, Tomlinson's latest poems are probably his most readily accessible; they still, however, constitute a language to be learned, a flavour to be found, and to care about Tomlinson is to approve of this difficulty.
Calvin Bedient, "On Charles Tomlinson," in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop (reprinted by permission of Dufour Editions, Inc.), Carcanet, 1972, pp. 172-89.
Contemplation of the visible world is the gradual filling up of a closed container. The fullness is wonderful: the finitude chafes. Yet Charles Tomlinson, England's truest contemplative since the Hopkins of the notebooks, blessed with a classical self-possession, on "I" as modest as a pane of glass, inhabits the day-long sphere of contemplation so variously and peaceably that he reconciles one to it, makes looking seem as large as vision. The only way to live in time without restlessness, he seems to say, is to learn to see it as a wealth of unresting changes: "Time present beyond all bargain," as he says in a poem on Midas, "liquid gifts."
For Tomlinson wisdom is acquiescence, acquiescence an allowing of the inward and the outward to meet and be, each stilled in the other, and fulfilled there. For this is what contemplation is, this mutual calming. We find this repose on duration difficult; after all, the depths of duration are death….
But the consolation of contemplation—its metaphysical deliverance—is the healing touch of reality…. No poet has ever seemed at once so intelligent and immune to anxiety as Tomlinson. His mind is superbly serene, inhumanly human. He descends upon appearances like a calm of love.
An instinctive poet, Tomlinson has invented, as William Carlos Williams said, a "new measure" that "gives a refreshing rustle" to the language. His lines break ascetically, his pace has a mellowed deliberation….
As a poet, he is complete, a convincing voice, at once a strict musician and a relentless philosopher of seeing. Since 1958, with the publication of "Seeing Is Believing," he has been the most consistently admirable poet writing in England. The English themselves have been tardy in taking to him, for somehow they get a wild smell of Williams off his work and, besides, have complained that he seldom writes about people. This last is true, but he is himself so powerfully civilized a presence in his poems (in this regard, so English) that the criticism amounts to a quibble.
The high point of Tomlinson's career to date is the first long section of poems in "The Way of a World" (1969)–poems dense with his loving intellection, his stringent sensuousness, his difficult grace, his strong dry beauty. Unfortunately, the comparably ambitious meditative poems in "Written on Water" hamper as much as they restrain the sensuous. The brilliance of the world is hidden behind the smoked glass of reflection; the display of contemplation is more apparent than its joy….
Still, almost all the new poems [in "Written on Water"] are in some part fine (it is hard for this poet to fail), and as many as a dozen give that rare happiness of knowing that someone alive in your own day is a master….
Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1973, p. 7.
For Charles Tomlinson, the formative energies of poetry are predicated upon certain normative conditions, analogous to the continual flux, the movement and motion, of music, memory, and the water on and about which he writes. These conditions are sustained in his poems by a modulating diction which repeatedly "halts (the) progress (of thought), / A clear momentary silhouette, before it / Dips and disappears into wordlessness." For Tomlinson is a connoisseur of incessant transmutations and disappearances, of that "coherent chaos … that refuses to declare itself," yet contains a poetic declaration, since "to say / Is to see again by the light of speech / Speechless."…
The "solid vacancies" of Tomlinson's poetry are the particular accomplishment of his supple language, and by employing this language—"the unspoken/ Familiar dialect of habitation—speech/ Behind speech, language that teaches itself/ Under the touch and sight"—to explore "the crossings and the interlacings" of his shifting and mutable, though highly contrived, perceptions, Tomlinson provides us with a compelling "liturgy of changes."…
J. E. Chamberlin, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 395-96.
[Tomlinson's] great strength as a translator [is that while] he has not (exactly) used other poets to develop the resources of English poetry, nor … aimed centrally at new types of translation,… his renderings, delicately faithful, where I can judge, to the essential feel, do stand as consummately executed new works. He is, indeed, one of the rare translators to read even when one has no need of a translation. 'His' Renga is decidedly a poem in its own right….
Tomlinson has always been concerned … with transcending personality. His contribution to Renga is remarkable for the tightly organized intent with which he uses the encounter of the poets and the collaborative nature of their poem as a means to enlarge his theme. His painting involves a similar disciplining of the self….
Tomlinson's poetry belongs to the literature of pietas…. Pietas is an ample tradition, Latin and subsequently European, founded largely in Virgil and Horace and fertile over here in divers ways—in Pope, say, and also in Wordsworth, and in those, like George Eliot, whom Wordsworth influenced. It stirs in Tomlinson's care for rightness and richness of relationship, with others, with nature, with the past and—if not exactly with the gods—with death, the dead and all that encompasses and bounds us. His pietas sizes the self and opens it to the otherness of the real. It is often pastoral, though it engenders no idyll: his verse sings the multiple interweavings of a man with the earth and its seasons, with space and time, but balances them, as one knows, against fundamental threats; and it records the passing of those communal meshings, with worked land and the practice of generations, which depend on a rural order now menaced by 'the soft oppression of prosperity'.
The source of his most sustained quickening of the tradition is his sense of place. Among his most potent words are 'where', 'here', 'there'. In the earlier books he celebrates buildings, in their just craftsmanship and their penetration by age and neighbourhood. Everywhere, he devises moments of spatial awareness, when a person is called out and made more vividly present by an illuminated perception of surroundings…. Deeply, his poetry is a search for 'Eden', a cherished word, and a lament for every loss of the piety of place….
It is likewise a Latin decorum, a neoclassical propriety, which motivates his deriding of literary exhibition and of extremity in life-styles and art-styles, in, among others, 'Ars Poetica'. And which stresses movingly sober poems about death, like 'Remembering Williams',… from Written on Water, that in its charged restraint is both casual and, in the end, dramatic, reticent and raw.
Tomlinson's concerns here generate what seems to me a poetry of obvious human, moral, imaginative richness. Though his outspokenness does expose limitations. One may feel that he asks too much of a seasoned attentiveness to the world outside as a solution to our problems, and one can regret that the self within is dismissed at once so easily and so curtly. It is also true that for anyone who believes nature to have a meaning that Tomlinson would disallow as mythic, his sense of reality, which is so beautifully and so copiously revealing of fact, nevertheless prevents itself ultimately from achieving fact's 'proper plenitude'.
While writing out of a tradition and interpreting a nexus of common themes, Tomlinson also admits into his verse some of that tradition's poets. If I have understood him, he is not only declaring his descent: he is essentially assembling and manifesting the tradition, and giving it tongue….
In all [his] poems taken together, Tomlinson has managed an original method of assimilating other poets. The tradition that he gathers, though diverse, is a whole, with the result that a clarified and particular communal voice is found to be speaking. It also includes many near-contemporaries, so that when Tomlinson writes, modern poetry is involved. Furthermore, the consequent impersonality is new, or at least newly established….
Tomlinson's diverse engaging with tradition and impersonality poses problems, both evaluative and theoretical. It clearly needs to be examined at greater length than here. Yet his poetry can be seen already, I believe, through this approach, to be a stimulating, ample enterprise. It maintains contact with the past. It defines a present. It opens up large technical possibilities for the future.
Michael Edwards, "Charles Tomlinson: Notes on Tradition and Impersonality," in Critical Quarterly, Summer, 1973, pp. 133-44.
Charles Tomlinson's new book [Written on Water] is virtually free from violence. He continues in the same mode in which he has developed his exacting and admired craftsmanship. Though he is occasionally grouped with Creeley and other Black Mountain poets, I think the link is tenuous. The American poet he most resembles is Marianne Moore, who wrote: "Ecstasy provides the occasion, but expediency determines the form." Tomlinson's precision derives from just such an emotional expediency. Both have mastered the tone of urgent conversation, and their poems are wrought with great pressure and energy. This volume is finer than his earlier American Scenes, and longer poems in a British locale, like "Mackinnon's Boat," give us the rare pleasure of things that are both beautiful and instructive…. Neither knobby to the ear nor abandonedly primitive, Tomlinson's lines work with trustworthy but surprising inventiveness.
Charles Molesworth, in The Nation, March 16, 1974, p. 347.
Tomlinson … practices and advocates an anti-romantic viewpoint. He urges us to curb our egocentric imaginations in the interest of acquiring accurate information about external nature, and his own poems exemplify his advice. From his experience as both painter and poet, however, he is intensely aware of the difficulties confronting those who wish to apprehend in undistorted fashion the "plenitude" of fact in the natural world. Particularly his earlier poems deal with various problems of perspective. He recognizes, for example, that the position which we adopt for purposes of observation necessarily constitutes a restricted and arbitrary focus upon unbounded and undifferentiated phenomena. We cannot embrace everything at a glance; we must be satisfied with what our vision encompasses. Nor will our attending carefully to an event necessarily permit us to distinguish all of its features. As disinterested observers we may admire the power and grace of the hawk's deadly stoop, but the hawk itself is conscious only of its hunger, nor is its descent beautiful in the eyes of its prey huddled in "the shrivelled circle / Of magnetic fear." A comparable relativity hedges round such universal physical features as space and light. It is important to realize as the Impressionists did that an object will assume different features depending upon the degree of light to which it is exposed….
Problems involving relativity of perspective are inseparable from omnipresent mutability, which interpenetrates all natural phenomena and complicates our efforts to understand ourselves as well as our surroundings. We yearn for a static and predictable realm in which we may order events and assign meaning to them…. [But] Tomlinson finds that the natural world has not been ordained specifically for human happiness, domination, and moral edification. He … recognizes that its immense power is dreadful, threatening, and unchallengeable, but he shares with his fellow poets the conclusion that by intelligently recognizing and deferring to natural forces, we can achieve a measure of dignity and peace.
Julian Gitzen, "British Nature Poetry Now," in The Midwest Quarterly, Summer, 1974, pp. 232-37.