Throughout his career, Charles Tomlinson has used his arts of poetry and painting to challenge nature’s objectivity with the shaping powers of human (subjective) imagination. He has spoken of the invitation to make meaning out of apparent meaninglessness, by discovering that “chance” rhymes with “dance,” and that “chance” interrupts and enlivens the deadening effects of certitude. Therefore, in volume after volume, Tomlinson tests the proposition expressed by the title of his third collection, Seeing Is Believing. At first, this seems to limit one’s imaginative capacity (to believe) to the outlines of things in sight, to the exteriors of being. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Tomlinson’s aesthetic detachment is an illusion of objectivity, that his art warms with the energies of combating objects in natural settings, negotiating space for culture and ritual, and rescuing values from history to compensate for anger at what humankind threatens to waste through ignorance and brutality.
The only poem that Tomlinson chose to rescue from his first collection, Relations and Contraries, to include in his Collected Poems is one simply titled “Poem.” Short though it is, “Poem” suggests a major interest of the early poetry: It describes a sequence of sounds heard by an “unstopped ear” from a winter scene of activity, including horses’ hooves making “an arabesque on space/ A dotted line in sound.” This containment of space with sound, to make “space vibrate,” is an effort that Tomlinson’s next volume, The Necklace, continues to make, as in “Aesthetic,” where “reality is to be sought . . . in space made articulate.” Imagination uses language to establish an order of things, set firmly in their own world, though subject to human play, as in “Nine Variations in a Chinese Winter Setting.”
Seeing Is Believing
This last poem takes its title from one by Wallace Stevens, the American poet whose work was an early important influence on Tomlinson. That influence continued to show in the third collection, Seeing Is Believing, which uses the painter’s experience to capture an essential artistic attitude toward objects or acts in space. Thus “Object in a Setting” achieves the sense of being in a piece of glass that resists all efforts “to wish it a more human image,” and “Paring the Apple” illustrates the beauty of art that forces “a recognition” of its charm even from those who look for a more “human” art in portraits. Still, the paring is an act of “human gesture,” which compels its own recognition that art requires the human to be, and so all art is essentially a human endeavor. The poem, “A Meditation on John Constable,” is art re-creating art: a poem about a painter making a painting. The title reinforces the very human essence of the artistic process: meditating about a human being who is an artist.
This is even more clear in those poems of Seeing Is Believing that occur as the consequence of visits to places. Although “At Holwell Farm” seeks to capture the “brightness” of air that is gathered “within the stone” of the farm’s wall and buildings, it moves to a gentle observation that it is a “dwelling/ Rooted in more than earth,” guarding an “Eden image.” “On the Hall at Stowey” records a visit to a deserted house, allowed to fall into ruin while the fields about it continue to be fruitful and well attended. The poet is angry that five centuries of culture have fallen into decay here, where once pride of tradition was boldly beautiful. What humanity bestowed upon the objective space of nature, humanity has taken away through the objective distancing of time.
A Peopled Landscape
A Peopled Landscape takes the concerns of place and time more warmly into more poems, as in “Harvest Festival: At Ozleworth.” The poet notices the ironic juxtaposition of remnants from both Roman and Christian history in the market scene of this country village: A harvest festival of pagan origins is conducted beneath the stone arch of a Christian church, to deepen the scene of space with the complexities of history. Working with juxtapositions of this kind, Tomlinson uses his return from a trip to the United States to observe differences between modern and traditional values in “Return to Hinton,” where he lovingly catalogs the details of his home, whose “qualities/ are like the land/ —inherited.” These are contrasted with life in a “rich and nervous land” where “locality’s mere grist/ to build.” This poem uses the three-layered verse form of Tomlinson’s American model William Carlos Williams; the preference for the American style of poetry is a complication of the poem’s theme, which admits its complicity in the process of modern detachment from traditional “farm-bred certainties.” This same sense of separateness from tradition, along with a yearning to enjoy the pleasures of the past, is a strong element of “The Farmer’s Wife” in the same volume.
American Scenes, and Other Poems
The impact and importance of American experience are dramatized by the title of Tomlinson’s next volume, American Scenes, and Other Poems, which nevertheless includes poems not immediately referring to American scenes or settings, such as “A Given Grace.” This is one of Tomlinson’s most discussed poems, partly because it continues to show the influence of Stevens as well as that of Williams and Moore. It does not use the three-layered form, but it establishes an Imagist posture associated with the Americans. The title, deliberately tautological, derives from the beauty of “two cups” set on a mahogany table; the “grace” given is a power of evocation from form to imagination, aptly recorded as the poem itself.
In “The Hill,” a woman gives grace to the poet’s perception. She climbs a hill, making it yield to her human pressure and take its shape of meaning from her presence. A more explicitly American scene is exploited in “The Cavern,” which recounts a descent that begins as a tourist’s jaunt but ends as a press toward “a deeper dark” where the self discovers its “unnameable and shaping home.” The poem works with gentle irony as it works out the myth of Theseus exploring the labyrinth: It acquires additional force if the final discovery of the self in its “shaping home” also suggests that the self is the minotaur as well as, or instead of, the heroic Theseus. However, there is further irony here, since the poem derives from Tomlinson’s travels through the American Southwest, where he records a discovery about his deepest self (repeating the experience of his predecessor D. H. Lawrence). This self-discovery is repeated in other poems, such as “Idyll,” which describes how the poet is drawn by the creative contrasts of quiet Washington Square in the heart of loud, bustling San Francisco. Here is not a desert cavern, but there is nevertheless a similar sense of self renewed by its identity in distance: A boy reading (beneath the lintel of a church upon which is carved a verse from Dante) draws the poet into a sympathetic identification as universal reader, for whom the message of the square is a “poised quiescence, pause and possibility.”
The Way of a World
One of Tomlinson’s most acclaimed volumes is The Way of a World, which includes the lovely “Swimming Chenango Lake,” a poem about establishing an artful relationship between human subjectivity and nature’s objectivity. It sympathetically observes the poise of a swimmer, who has paused in a quiescent moment to study possibilities before leaping into an autumn lake. The swimmer is like an artist, measuring the “geometry of water” before attempting to master it with his skill, but the swimmer is also all humanity participating in the challenging processes of all nature. In this poem, Tomlinson has brought together many of his career’s themes: aesthetic observation through detachment, cold reflectiveness, and human calculation. Like the swimmer, human beings “draw back” from the cold mercilessness of nature, even as they force a kind of “mercy” from it, making nature sustain the human experience.
In this volume, Tomlinson demonstrates more decisively his strong distaste for extremism of all kinds, whether political or artistic, even though he has himself explored the use of American experimental aesthetic practices. His poem “Prometheus” is a strong work of imagination in which the poet listens to a radio broadcast of music by the Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin; since there is a storm outside his house at the time, the poet can juxtapose the two events, artistic and natural, to each other. Because Scriabin’s Prometheus is a work intended to help further the apocalypse of revolution, his music is examined as an exercise in political irony. This is made possible by the mockery of “static” in the radio’s transmission during an electrical storm; the static is a figurative vehicle for the poet’s mockery of art in the service of political propaganda. Music is the source of inspiration for another poem of the volume, “Night Transfigured,” which derives from a work by Arnold Schoenberg. This poem is a kind of conclusion to a three-poem sequence beginning with “Eden” and followed by “Adam,” as the poet becomes a new Adam-artist transfiguring the night of modernism with his light of imagination.
Tomlinson includes in The Way of a World two interesting experiments of his art, “Skullshapes” and...
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