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...
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