Jon Silkin Silkin, Jon (Vol. 6) - Essay

Silkin, Jon (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Silkin, Jon 1930–

Silkin is an English poet and critic and the editor and publisher of the beautiful little poetry quarterly Stand. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Silkin's poetry from 1950–71 is a process of reformulation and development, constantly more relevant to social issues and more precise with regard to inner contradictions…. [There is], I think, an increasingly consistent articulation of the relationships between life's positive and negative forces.

In crude terms, it can be said that the destructive forces become more and more internalised, are recognised as intertwined with the sources of growth and therefore not to be treated within any simple dualistic framework. In The Peaceable Kingdom (1954) there is still a clear distinction, and separation, between good and evil, innocence and the predator….

The tender and angry vision of The Peaceable Kingdom, relatively simple in its articulation, allows for loving incantation: not mere wishful thinking, but the will to cherish (and to will that will) of a heart still innocent of its own guilt. I am thinking of "A Space in Air", "Death of a Son", "Never any Dying", "For David Emmanuel".

The Two Freedoms (1958) has moved, in the main, beyond such possibilities. It is stylistically less assured. The poet seems to be casting about for a mode of statement that will distance and give general significance to radical changes of attitude. His appeals to the Bible, to Milton and Eliot, are particularly clear, though there is no question of mere imitation—the pressure of individual needs is too strong….

[The Re-Ordering of the Stones] (1961) is indeed a "re-ordering". In some respects, it amounts to a devastation, though temporary, of the poet's normal approach to his subjects and forms. Before and after this volume his manner tends to be tentative and, simultaneously, ruthlessly insistent. in The Re-Ordering of the Stones … he becomes explicit, even forthright, and the forms show an immediate and obvious change, from complex syntax and stanzas to short phrases, short lines and an absence of stanza-divisions…. The re-ordering clearly involved an attempt at sorting out, and to some extent mastering in intellectual terms, personal and social themes which had so far remained partially latent….

[The] dominant if not final impression left by The Re-Ordering of the Stones is, intellectually at least, rendered in "Asleep?" and "The Measure"….

Silkin's poetry aims at an embodiment of

                 Coupled to the embraces,
                 The convictions, of feeling.

The image is relevantly sexual. The relationship of man and woman is a fundamental emblem of separateness and relationship. Nature with Man (1965), asserting mankind's relationship to and difference from the unconscious natures from which he grew (in the poem "Nature with Man"), contains a near perfect paradigm of symbiosis…. The poem gathers together and interrelates at least four central themes: man's relatedness to nature and its processes; his difference; the dual though not dualistic root of love and growth (woman is soil to the man who can grow in her—when, that is, she is "a woman to a man", as she longs and fails to be in "Amana Grass"—but soil was once stone and, therefore, it would seem, represents a metamorphosis of destructive forces, perhaps even retains particles of death: suffering is comparably ambivalent); and the wider social implications of any division or community between individual lovers….

[In Amana Grass,] Silkin writes poem-sequences more explicitly social than all but a few of his earlier poems….

Silkin is a genuine artist: an explorer, never a reproducer of his own or of other writers' acquisitions. He is often felicitous, and often clumsy or archaic; at times crystalline (in the fullest sense), at other difficult, even matted. He has, indeed, the faults of his qualities. It is as easy to point to awkwardness in such a writer as it is foolish to stop at it. His work embodies vital impulses and these are bound not to be self-protectingly tidy: they are about other business. The "open" overall form of the best poems, together with the complex internal controls that operate on syntax, word-choice and imagery, convey on a stylistic level a dominant onward thematic process, together with a minute hold on the "perpetual combinations and permutations" which that process must not sacrifice or brutalise. There is, I think, something of crucial value for the 'seventies in a poet who can conceive, utterly without mere fancifulness, of a world of "mind and matter" whose various elements conflict and yet enter into (generally symbiotic) relationships that effect both personal and social realities. (pp. 165-66, 168)

Anne Cluysenaar, "Alone in a Mine of Reality: A Matrix in the Poetry of Jon Silkin" (copyright © Anne Cluysenaar, 1972), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 165-71.

With Jon Silkin we come … on lines soaked in a peculiar sensibility, strained forward for intense realization; yet the sensibility is somewhat too self-steeped, the strain grotesque. There is more manner than matter in Silkin; the manner fusses, fingers, twists, is pedantic, and meanwhile the matter scarcely feels a thing. Silkin's strength is that he cares; his weakness is that his intelligence seldom singles out anything to explain the caring. Though easily as intelligent as the next man in his prose, in his poetry his mind fumbles, in the belief—only half right—that a poet should not get straight to the point: he should get there, I think, but with all of himself, and all together; Silkin lets his mind pant after his feeling. He is gawky, unintentionally funny; he lacks a sense of humor….

The more you read him the more you fall under the hypnotic influence of his monotonous, measured tone—the way you feel after driving too long, the drone of the tires in your ears. The discursive scramble of his thought becomes a kind of outing. For all his dawdling and uncertainty of direction, he can end a poem (for instance, "Killhope Wheel") on a note that makes the rest a composition. Still, his sense of form is dully low-temperatured. He offers the mesmerism of an experiencing mood in a still sluggish state. (pp. 79-80)

Calvin Bedient, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1973.

One goes to Silkin to be reminded of absolute human grief or joy…, not for local detail. The success of the scrupulous and suggestive flower poems, for instance [in The Principle of Water] now seems a casual stepping out of character in his work, not a new direction—though I personally prefer him when he has his eye firmly on his subject. At the heart of the new collection is 'The People', a piece the blurb foolishly calls a play and ascribes wry wit to. Nothing was ever less witty. It brings together a couple, Finn and Kye, with their defective baby Adam, and a stranger Stein, a former Buchenwald victim. The non-syntax, the internal language of blood, the stumbling oblique recreation of the few events of the story, all these evoke the poet's sense of pure reassessment of life's meaning, a primal drama of man and woman. It is a poem, like so many of Silkin's recently, which has moved from overt pathos or accusation to an exploration of states of being, and the style is correspondingly difficult and peculiar. I wish I thought it was needfully so. (pp. 22-3)

John Fuller, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 5, 1974.

The language of Jon Silkin's The Principle of Water is hard and searching. In, for instance, his sequence "Killhope Wheel", no matter how accurately he describes episodes, or objects identifiable as part of "reality", language evokes mysteriousness rather than the plainly visual. The radical romanticism of the sequence is somehow converted to a sweeter purpose, and beauty is born out of complaint.

There is a weighty power of sound in Silkin's poems. It's more than my accent which emphasises his "r" sounds, or finds itself deepening vowels. Involved in his art of resonance, his images, what can be seen, are chosen so that an almost indefinable quality of "moral", of a point being made, is imparted as well—

          A want of sound hangs
          in a drop of moisture from the wheel that
          turned and washed the ore.

I can see what is being described; but it is that "want of sound" that holds the meaning of the scene, is the caption to the entire image.

By his own profession, Silkin is a "committed" poet…. Clarity and directness are thought essential to any "committed" writing. Silkin works against that baleful simplification.

For instance, it could never be said that Silkin was an "elegant" poet, in anything like the way that description fits Davie or Tomlinson. A deliberate attempt would seem to have been made by Silkin to avoid the sort of diction and style which were introduced by the Movement in the 1950s, and of which Tomlinson, to be fair, was a principal enemy….

[Silkin's] long poem "The People", cast as an inert verse-play, is full of firmly worked and severe passages of great power. Steeped in the predicaments of European Jewishness, and obviously the work of long and careful labour, it is of monumental dimensions. Too often, though, cadence and diction coagulate into a heavy fustian, carefully clotted, not sufficiently dramatic to justify its nature as a "verse play", though that I think is a form chosen as an occasion by Silkin, a way of making the writing possible, rather than an opportunity to attempt a peculiarly spoken kind of poem.

His seriousness of purpose is warming. There are no slipshod gestures in the name of "wit." What can be sensed is a sardonic reluctance to engage in what is usually thought of as "wry." He turns away from humour, from an inappropriate lightness of touch, with the defensive grin of one accused, a grin of counter-accusation. It is not an easy book. There is nothing in The Principle of Water to flatter a reader's expectations, or invite his approval. A true talent sticks to its truth, demanding a similar earnestness and work from the reader. Nor does Silkin's writing advocate that his poems are primarily stylistic procedures. (pp. 88-9)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), March, 1975.