Charles Tomlinson’s Collected Poems reprints, in the sequence in which they appeared, all of his collections from The Necklace (1955) through The Flood (1981). Not included is the later collection Notes from New York (1984); Tomlinson’s first book of poems, the pamphlet Relations and Contraries (1951), is represented here by a single poem—one which, as he notes in the preface, “stands in the present volume as a kind of prelude to what follows.” The book itself is lovely, compact (more British than American in size), with one of Tomlinson’s graphics decorating the front jacket. Why there is no index is a mystery.
This volume should provoke a wider critical appreciation of Tomlinson’s achievement. His work has always had its champions—most notably Hugh Kenner, who was instrumental in the publication of Tomlinson’s first full-length collection, Seeing Is Believing (1958), in the United States after its rejection by numerous English publishers. (A belated and slightly expanded British edition was published in 1960, and it is that version which is reprinted here.) In his superb book Eight Contemporary Poets (1974), Calvin Bedient began his chapter on Tomlinson with an unequivocal assertion—“Charles Tomlinson is the most considerable British poet to have made his way since the Second World War”—and went on, in what remains the best single reading of Tomlinson, to substantiate that judgment. Still, if Tomlinson’s advocates have been of the first rank, his work has not been brought to the attention of American readers as has that of, for example, Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin. There are, it seems, two closely related reasons for this relative neglect, an understanding of which will bring Tomlinson’s distinctive qualities into focus.
First, there is the matter of the strong American affiliations in Tomlinson’s work—repeatedly noted by critics and fully acknowledged by the poet himself in Some Americans: A Personal Record (1981), which, in addition to offering memorable portraits of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and Georgia O’Keeffe, traces Tomlinson’s own development, the shaping of his mind and style. At the same time, Tomlinson has been open to other traditions outside those of his native England; himself active as a translator, he has edited The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation (1980).
Assimilating these influences, Tomlinson has fashioned a poetic language that is neither aggressively local (in the manner of much British poetry of the 1970’s and 1980’s) nor remotely “American” English. In Kenner’s formulation, Tomlinson is “the first poet to have learned a way of being distinctly English by mastering an idiom markedly international. Consequently he can write English, in England, as though it were a foreign tongue of amazing resources, at his thorough if somewhat wary command.” That is a brilliant description of Tomlinson’s style, for what is striking about his scrupulous English is precisely its detachment from any locatable community of speakers.
This, then, is the first reason for Tomlinson’s lack of visibility: He is British, but not in the way that Americans expect British to be. Tomlinson’s linguistic detachment, however, his deliberate giving up of the resources of local idiom, cannot really be separated from his way of seeing the world. To some readers, he seems cold. This is the second barrier to appreciation of his work. The excitement of the Collected Poems lies in Tomlinson’s triumph over these potential liabilities, which are transformed into the hallmarks of his highly original style.
One senses that originality immediately in the first poems in this volume, despite the obvious debts to Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. The Necklace, comprising only fifteen short poems, takes its title from Stevens: “The necklace is a carving not a kiss.” Here, the opposition between “a carving” and “a kiss” adumbrates what Tomlinson has described as his “basic theme—that one does not need to go beyond sense experience to some mystic union, that the ’I’ can only be responsible in relationship and not by dissolving itself away into ecstasy or the Oversoul.” Tomlinson’s preference for the carved, his distrust of undisciplined emotion, could (and occasionally does) produce poetry that is excessively abstract. What saves him, for the most part, from this fate is his deep responsiveness to the natural world. There is a remarkable lack of self-absorption in these poems of a young man, and a gift for unforced delight in perception, as in these lines from “Nine Variations in a Chinese Winter Setting”
Pine-scentIn snow-clearnessIs not more exactly counterpointedThan the creak of trodden snowAgainst a flute.
From the beginning, however, Tomlinson has resisted the reductionism of commonsense realism: His rock-solid sense of things and textures, finding a congeniality between the temper of British empiricism and the fiercely American vision of William Carlos Williams, is balanced by a keen interest in the process of perception and the shaping power of the imagination. The claims of the latter are astringently argued in “The Art of Poetry”:
At first, the mind feels bruised.The light makes white holes through the black foliageOr mist hides everything that is not itself.But how shall one say so?—The fact being, that when the truth is not good enoughWe exaggerate. ProportionsMatter. It is difficult to get them right.There must be nothingSuperfluous, nothing which is not elegantAnd nothing which is if it is merely that.
Tomlinson is justifiably celebrated as a poet of observation; for that reason it is important to say that he is also a poet of imagination. “Mushrooms,” from a much later collection, The Shaft (1978), explicitly and brilliantly treats the relation between observation and imagination. “Eyeing the grass for mushrooms,” the poet begins, “you will find/ A stone or stain, a dandelion puff/ Deceive your eyes—their colour is enough/ To plump the image out to mushroom size. . . .” Such illusions have their own value, the poet suggests, instructing the seeker to “waste/ None of the sleights of seeing. . .”: in the poem’s concluding lines, he celebrates the life-giving power of the imagination in harmony with the observing eye:
For realer than a myth of claritiesAre the meanings that you read and are not there:Soon, in the twilight coolness, you will comeTo the circle that you seek and, one by one,Stooping into their fragrance, break and gather,Your way a winding where the rest lead onLike stepping stones across a grass of water.
“Mushrooms,” with its rhymes and glancing rhymes, is a reminder of Tomlinson’s range. There is indeed abundant formal variety in this volume. In the later collections, though there are still few poems that scan according to traditional metrics, rhyme is much more frequent; one also finds a handful of prose pieces. Many of the poems collected in A Peopled Landscape (1963) follow Williams’ “three-ply measure”: this form, which also reflects the influence of Marianne Moore, is well suited to Tomlinson’s discursive style, and it is a pity that he has rarely returned to it since that time.
A particularly fine example from A Peopled Landscape is “The Impalpabilities,” which begins with an acknowledgment of all that eludes clear definition:
It is the sense of things that we must include because we do not understand themthe impalpabilities in the marine dark the chordsthat will not resolve themselves but hang in an orchestral undertowdissolving (celeste above shifting strings) yet where the dissolutiongathers the echoes from an unheard voice. . . .
A different kind of poet might stop there (as many contemporary poets would, content to say that much cannot be said). It is characteristic of Tomlinson that, even as he evokes “the impalpabilities,” he describes a natural scene with extraordinary fidelity and with an intellectual clarity that recalls the similes of Dante:
and so the woodadvances before the evening takes it— branches tense in a light like water,as if (on extended fingers) supporting the cool immensity while we meditate the strengthin the arms we no longer see.
Those closing lines sound a religious note, one that recurs throughout Tomlinson’s work, almost always in this form, implicit and guarded. In a poem from The Flood, entitled “Instead of an Essay,” there is, however, a rare explicitness concerning the religious sense that informs this volume, and the poem, not one of Tomlinson’s best, is worth noting for that reason. It is addressed to the poet and critic Donald Davie; writing to his friend, Tomlinson names himself “Brother in a mystery you trace/ To God, I to an awareness of delight/ I cannot name. . . .” The illustration by Tomlinson that graces the jacket of the Collected Poems is dated, titled, and signed in a fine hand, the letters tiny but legible: Ode to Joy. It is a fitting icon for this book, which asks its readers to share in the poet’s awareness of delight.
British Book News. November, 1985, p. 690.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, December 17, 1986, p. 23.
The London Review of Books. VIII, February 20, 1986, p. 20.
The Observer. January 12, 1986, p. 47.
Times Literary Supplement. March 21, 1986, p. 308.