Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles (Vol. 13)
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 CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev.ed.)
Charles Tomlinson has made the inquiry into craft almost the major subject of his poetry. His is an extremely self-conscious quest, yet, for all that, he has produced some finely achieved poems in his first three collections.
Before discussing what I believe to be Tomlinson's most important collection to date, The Way of a World, I want to share misgivings I had about his poetry, if only to shed a number of them now.
After reading and rereading The Necklace, Seeing is Believing, A Peopled Landscape, and American Scenes and Other Poems, one could be in no doubt about Tomlinson's accomplishment. The early, rather ornate, over-wordy poems had been replaced by poems which showed a rigorous and critical feeling for language. The careful study of a wide range of American poets is obvious enough. So is the influence of American landscape. Tomlinson is one of the few visiting poets to realize that parts of America are as much a "haunted landscape" as Europe.
The sensitive reader would soon discover from the poems themselves that Tomlinson is a painter. He shows an acute sense of color, certainly, but there is, above anything else, an overwhelming feeling that in so many of his earlier poems objects are being arranged for painting.
The world Tomlinson depicted in his early collections was never quite without sound; there are, for example, several overheard conversations...
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Charles Tomlinson's poetry tempts one to adjectives like "restrained," "modest," "exquisite," "moral," "patient," and "attentive." He is the most fastidious and observant of poets, scrupulously probing into the world around him, continually noticing the fluctuations in that world's appearance. He has a physical and metaphysical concern with the shimmer and glamour of surfaces and for him, as for Ruskin and Stevens, "the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world."… [He] brings to his poems a painter's sensitivity to the importance of exteriors. He shares with some of the painters he most admires … an attentiveness to physical detail, an objective concern with the shadings and shadows of landscape, a wonder before the natural object, a fidelity to the nuances of light and darkness. A moral sense informs Tomlinson's respect for the Other—both human and nonhuman—and much of his work investigates the complex relationship between the observer and the observed. The poems not only see, they are about the difficult and creative act of seeing. This in turn leads him to investigate the paradox of a dual allegiance to the shaping imagination and to the splendors of the unshaped natural world.
In the measure of his interests and in the measured way they are presented in the poetry. Tomlinson has some clear American prototypes and analogues. American connections are very much to the point since no other English poet has been more deeply influenced by, or attentive to, American poetry. Tomlinson's carefully noticed moral landscapes have much in common with the blocked observations of Marianne Moore … and the sharply focused 'machines' of William Carlos Williams. His concern with the shifting relationship between appearance and reality is reminiscent of Stevens, but the austerity of his presentation has more in common with the Objectivists. In fact, one of the paradoxes, indeed one of the pleasures of reading Tomlinson's work, involves watching how the extravagant painterly sensibility of, say, a Stevens can be tempered by and reflected through the stringent imaginings of, say, a Zukofsky. But although Tomlinson has deep affinities with Stevens and Moore, Pound, Williams, and Zukofsky, Bishop, Bronk, and Oppen, he is very much his own poet and has created his own singular body of work…. To my mind Charles Tomlinson is one of the most astute, disciplined, and lucent poets of his generation. He is one of the few English poets to have extended the inheritance of modernism and I suspect that his quiet meditative voice will reverberate on both sides of the Atlantic for a long time to come.
Tomlinson's first pamphlet, Relations and Contraries (1951), is weak and wholly derivative in uncharacteristic ways. The title resonates throughout Tomlinson's work, but only one poem from the book, somewhat chastely entitled "Poem," survives into the Selected Poems. It is with The Necklace (1955) that Tomlinson finds his characteristic subject and theme, although not quite his most natural manner, and it is here that any reading of the work must begin. Written under the elegant sign of Stevens …, The Necklace is a book of jewels and flutes, irised mornings and olive twilights. It does not quite escape its Stevensian echoes (Tomlinson's jewels are both more precious and more delicate than Stevens' wild diamonds) but the poems do sometimes swerve away from Stevens' influence and at such moments Italy becomes a plainer, barer, and altogether less Romantic and chimerical place…. His most decisive poems have edges and outlines, the sharp sculptural clarity of crystal. But most important is the fact that The Necklace declares the subject and the aesthetic of Tomlinson's work: the art and act of seeing, of noticing relations and contraries, of making space articulate. The poem "Aesthetic" is an early Ars Poetica.
Reality is to be sought, not in concrete,
But in space made articulate:
The shore, for instance,
Spreading between wall and wall;
Tearing the silence from the silence.
Marking the voice between silence and silence, sighting the expanse of shore spreading between wall and wall; these are cognitive and creative acts, the way to search for and, hopefully, to discover reality. Tomlinson attends to the concrete in all its particularity, but the poems continually tell us that, for art, what matters is not the single object but the object in relationship to other objects, the tissue of relations that hold together the world.
The relationship between the voice (or in the case of the painter, the hand) and the eye is a complex one….
"Flute Music" relates that
There is a moment for speech and for silence.
Lost between possibilities
But deploring a forced harmony,
We elect the flute.
A season, defying gloss, may be the sum
Of blue water beneath green rain;
It may comprise comets, days, lakes
Yet still bear the exegesis of music.
The music's difficult job is to create a harmony (unforced), to gloss a season (which defies gloss), to govern "the ungovernable wave." It must translate the provisional world in all of its fullness (what we see) into the language of consonant forms (what we hear)…. It is the supreme exegetical function of art to circumscribe the moonlight, to speak of the unspeakable, to embody in song the diversity and economy of the phenomenal world. The flute must move "with equal certainty" (and fidelity) "through a register of palm-greens and flesh-rose."
Such work demands a delicate balance: it eschews an extravagant Romanticism; it shuns "a brittle and false union." Tomlinson's aesthetic of quiet attentiveness stands in a calm Wordsworthian light; it also stands at the opposite end and indeed takes as its enemy—at the moment some-what unfashionably so—the grandiloquent and frenzied propulsions of, say, a Shelley. It refuses the projection of the self onto a mute natural world…. [It] is not until he takes the lucid step into his first full scale collection, Seeing Is...
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Tomlinson uses words like colours. Patterns of sounds either suggest themselves to him, or else he lays them on his verbal canvases with such professional ease that they seem to have grown there. His flowing, descriptive poems are uniquely delightful, leading from surface to surface in such a way as to suggest depths, or in some cases, to a dissolution of the surface altogether into pure sensation. Because the world Tomlinson observes is so accurately transformed into poetry, the world he imagines, in poems on Marat and Charlotte Corday [in The Shaft], comes as something of a surprise. The historical poems in The Shaft are less visual than Tomlinson's nature poems, and they suffer, slightly, from some...
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In "Small Action Poem" (1966) Charles Tomlinson introduces Chopin "shaking music from the fingers". Chopin's art was second nature to him. Tomlinson is not that sort of artist. He is to an unusual degree fastidious. In The Shaft … there are poems which he characterizes as "bagatelles"—a genre he has frequently exploited, most memorably in American Scenes (1966) which gives the lie to those critics who dismiss him as "humourless". Tomlinson's humour is broad, short on fashionable local wit but rich in human observation. Yet the bagatelles are marginal in Tomlinson's work. At the centre is not anecdote but an acute perception of a common world with a history, a world of movement and process—two of...
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R. W. Flint
Is Mr. Tomlinson more touching than sustaining, more admirable than likable? Absolutely not. No truth whatever in the charge. But one does need to shove a little to get past his potent Praetorian Guard and into the presence of the living work. (p. 9)
Mr. Tomlinson is anything but apologetic about the bracing coolness, the receptive detachment, the intoxicating vigilance he brings to the task of survival in a country whose very indifference to poetry becomes an unlooked-for source of strength. A contemplative with a gift for the dramatic, he is as devoted as Wordsworth and Ruskin to the spirit of place. But he is enough a man of the world to know that it hardly matters whether or not he stays at home;...
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