Roy Fisher Essay - Critical Essays

Fisher, Roy


Roy Fisher 1930–

English poet.

Fisher's poetry is often set in urban landscapes, usually his native Birmingham. His most recognized work, City, has been compared with William Carlos Williams's Patterson and he has acknowledged his interest in Williams's concept, "no ideas but in things." Fisher's poetic strategy is to present a detached description of phenomenal reality as he perceives it. His observations and insights are rendered in concrete details which transfigure the ordinary. He creates, in the words of critic Deborah Mitchell, "a grammar of sensory experience."

Fisher is also a jazz pianist and his poetry reflects the improvisation, loose structure, and varying tempos associated with jazz. He claims that his poetry is more influenced by music than by literature.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Fisher is in many ways traditional, and like most good poets uses tradition for his own ends. He's deeply of the city, an imagist with a vein of childhood reminiscence. The Ship's Orchestra was an intermittently fascinating and boring book, a sort of avant-garde Pinfold or Party Going, gaining from the richness of its fantasies and losing with their pointlessness. Most of the poems in [Collected Poems 1968] predate The Ship's Orchestra and do not share its extremism. The longest section, called "City", alternates poetry and prose, and celebrates the self-help and cooperation of those Midlands conurbations that Fisher has always lived in. He usually looks for mystery in these house and street scenes but he neither solicits it nor fakes it…. While the minutiae of life are justly observed, the total effect is turned aside into mild surrealism—the wind is thought to come only from the next street, gun barrels rolled in lint are under the floorboards, a foetus in the dustbin moves a claw. This is Birmingham as Magritte might have seen it. Fisher's chief fault is a refusal to permit himself the vulgarity of a plain line of development. He insists on the tenuous greyness of reality and will only colour it with fantasy. His poems are all seeing, but he sees with originality and style.

"Midland Fantasy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3517, July 24, 1969, p. 828.∗

Alan Brownjohn

Recognition of Roy Fisher's verse … is long overdue. In his Collected Poems he has a poem called 'The Intruder' in which the image of a young girl walks in from nowhere onto some idle, arbitrary thought about colours. If the idea is nearly in the Whimsical vein, Fisher has the intelligence to see that no thought is utterly inconsequential, and to perceive that his talent is for catching those moments of consciousness when odd, luminous slants on reality provide insight or understanding. He works this personal seam (though it's one which derives from William Carlos Williams, even Wallace Stevens a little) very beautifully in poems like 'City'—surely one of the most consistently interesting experimental poems to come out of the little magazine activity of the last decade? The danger for Fisher is of a kind of detached aestheticism ('working to distinguish an event from an opinion'); but at its best, his precise evocation of the sheer delicate oddness of ordinary things (see 'The Park' and 'For Realism') can be as almost haunting as those ravaged industrial landscapes of the early Auden. (p. 701)

Alan Brownjohn, "Subways," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 78, No. 2018, November 4, 1969, pp. 700-01.∗

Eric Mottram

['City' from Collected Poems can] be said to be a set of ways in which a responsive sensuous man fights off aristocratism in a levelling and mediocre environment…. What is so warmly present is Fisher's sense of responsible living possible for the artist who sees and whose eyes hold excitement for him, as he uses the technological and human environment, and, as McLuhan would say, makes it visible. (p. 13)

The penetrating mood of 'City' is not … nostalgia but of exploring for relevance to the business of living, working, loving, family….

The Ship's Orchestra is an assemblage, erotic and musical (Fisher's experience with bands and combos penetrates the work). The prose sentences and paragraphs belong to that kind of writing which varies its pitch and tone and cannot simply be called 'poetic prose' or some other such academic slotting. It is certainly a fine instrument…. Like listening to jazz changes, reading Ship's Orchestra you have to be alert to variants…. Ship's Orchestra is among other things a description of a way of life: that when the sound stops, the music dies and with it a part of the ongoing life of the band as men and women…. (p. 14)

Like 'City' the book is concerned with the dangers of finding meaning in an environment, of needing to have a larger inclusive meaning into which work and day-to-day living may be fitted…. (p. 15)

The space of the work is a music-less ship, with its maze of dark tubes and cul-de-sacs; the form of the work is the waking part of the sexual dream which merges with memories of childhood sexuality. The nightmare of endless and various pipes of connection, communication, organization, evacuation and intake becomes 'the system', a city in itself, out of Fisher's own necessity. Gradually the absence of music becomes the exploration of an...

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Ronald Hayman

[Roy Fisher's] Collected Poems reveal a very interesting talent. In the pictures he draws of Birmingham, his strong sense of place works hand in hand with his affectionate awareness of people.

Denise Levertov has compared his "The City" with Paterson, which is flattering to Roy Fisher but not absurd. There is good writing both in the verse and in the prose passages which interlard it. By a careful descriptive focus on parts of the city, Roy Fisher creates an impression of it as a whole, rooting the human lives into the industrial landscape. His rhythms imply sympathy and criticism at the same time and he generates a genuine poetry by crowding unpoetic details together. Images jostle each other like slum buildings and the tone conveys a mixture of resignation and resentment. (p. 91)

Ronald Hayman, "The City and the House," in Encounter (© 1970 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, February, 1970, pp. 84-91.∗

David Zaiss

Roy Fisher's poems are dark and turbulent. One section of [Collected Poems 1968], called simply City, is exemplary; in it, a poetic conscience corresponding to modernity sets out, in visionary terms, on a journey to its own painful beginnings. With the exception of one poem, The Entertainment of War,… the section reads like an attempt, on the part of humanity, to come to terms with inhumanity, with the built-in phthisis of the urban situation. However, Fisher's tone is too reserved, and the grand undertaking he may have only felt awaits some future seer. The City poems are more vital than visionary, in at least one sense. They speak to an awareness; their dark heat raises an ordinary moment in the mind, so that the images almost crunch…. (p. 51)

In general, Fisher seems a bit over-serious, but he avoids the exaggeration and egocentricity that mar most 'serious' poetry. A minimal dependence upon irony gives his voice an unusual plausibility and integrity, if these are virtues. Most of his best delivery sounds like good prose, and throughout this book his use of prose sections is not interruptive. The City piece stands out for me, but there are other solid poems in the collection, notably, The Small Room, Toyland, Chirico for its drive and defiance, and the long antiphon (as Fisher subtitles it) at the end, At No Distance. In this last poem, a conspicuous attempt is made to voluntarize the collisions between voices, and partly due to this, partly due to a coherent sense of timing and image, the poem comes off very well. (p. 52)

David Zaiss, "Perfect Circles," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXVI, No. 1, April, 1970, pp. 51-5.∗

Alan Brownjohn

[Roy Fisher's Collected Poems] made the best case I had seen for an English experimental poetry which drew something usable and interesting out of the work of the American avant-garde; his weirdly and delicately observed landscapes of urban desolation offered a slant on things which no one else was providing—at least not with the same wry wit and humanity. Matrix … was slightly disappointing; and his new volume, The Thing About Joe Sullivan, still finds him in rather uncertain form. The "difficulty" in these poems is that kind of opacity which results when every image is granted its own individual life and the poet feels inhibited from pulling them together into lumps of paraphrasable...

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Deborah Mitchell

Readers of Fisher's Collected Poems might be forgiven for believing him to be a poet concerned with realism, albeit a realism used for his own ends. More recently, however, he has developed other aspects of his work and the industrial landscape whose presence was so overpowering in his earlier poems has now been assimilated…. [He has come] to believe that in the enumeration of 'realistic' detail there is as much exercise of subjective choice as in other kinds of artistic artifice. This is not of course an original idea; but it is one which he has arrived at in a peculiarly personal way.

The imagination which gave us such evocative detail in City was obsessed with the significance of...

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Andrew Motion

It's not difficult … to see why Fisher has been denied a larger public. For one thing, there's almost no drama in his poems. He says himself, 'In my poems there's seldom / any I or you'—which means there's not only seldom any love poetry, but also seldom any individuated human beings at all. Instead, he offers what he calls the 'music of the generous eye': poems which celebrate the phenomenal world by the clarity with which they perceive it. And when people do stray across his field of vision they frequently seem neither more nor less important than the scenery in which they appear. In fact people and objects are often almost indistinguishable—so much so that their functions are sometimes...

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Philip Gardner

The map of post-war British poetry is today very much denser and more various than it appeared a decade ago, when the so-called "Movement" poets seemed to dominate the 1950s and Ted Hughes and the "Mersey Beats" the 1960s…. [An] increasing response to other themes and emphases, together with a greater awareness of American poetry, has ensured that a long-neglected poet like Basil Bunting, and such near-contemporaries as Charles Tomlinson and Geoffrey Hill, are now seen as equally valuable practitioners of other modes. It is with these poets, who combine American technical influences with a content strongly English in its sense of locality and history, that Roy Fisher displays his closest affinities….


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Michael Hulse

Reading Poems 1955–1980 took on the character of an eye-opener, and although there are still a good many poems in the book which are dead weight, others present an angle on poetry which has taken its bearings largely from American poets (like Williams, or the Black Mountain poets) whose influence on British writers waned during the confessional heyday, but which nonetheless … combines strong English and European elements to create something distinctive. (p. 112)

To describe Fisher's affinities is less of a service to the poet than to define his own strengths. He achieves unusually successful counterpoints in his sequences (some of them partly or completely in cadenced prose). Refusing to...

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The inclusive nature of [Poems, 1955–1980] confronts the reader with the paradoxical problem of being simultaneously exposed to Fisher's enormous versatility as a poet and to his weakness for a falsely elevated urbane wit. At his best (and there are easily 15 poems in this collection that stand among the best of modern and postmodern British poetry), Fisher writes a clear, tense poem that is at once clipped and musical. He is strongest in his long poems, which allow him to spread out his sparse observations of modern dilemmas so that the poems have a cumulative effect. The long poems, "Handsworth liberties" and "Wonders of obligation," are remarkable for their sustained vision and their clarity. It is only...

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Peter Porter

Roy Fisher is a poet strongly bound to experiment and to certain avant-garde expectations. 'The Ship's Orchestra,' for instance, which is reprinted in 'Poems 1955–1980,' is a typical work of the 1960s. It is difficult, compacted and surreal; yet it has charm and many flashes of brilliant writing. It seems to me as natural a work as Henry Green's 'Party Going,' which it resembles slightly, but you cannot imagine anyone writing anything like it today, while you can readily enough with the Green novel.

Fisher sees things very sharply…. [He] is a fine jazz pianist and many of his poems borrow from jazz the technique of improvisation. This enables him to compose over considerable length: 'Wonders of...

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