Philip Gardner

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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….

Where Fisher and Hill are alike is in their attitude to utterance itself: both expend much effort in order to crystallize thought and feeling into hard verbal constructs that resist paraphrase, and are extremely reluctant to make discursive statements. About the only discursive poem in [Poems 1955–1980], a recent one entitled "Paraphrases", is in fact a wry, double-edged joke about the poet and his readers, based on some of their letters to him….

"Paraphrases" is an uncharacteristically prosy poem. Prose itself, however, is a vehicle which Fisher uses seriously, austerely, and with a fine sense of cadence in, and for, some of his longer pieces, though I wish he had not chosen to print last in this volume his longest and most obscure poem, The Ship's Orchestra…. This, like The Cut Pages, is a work "written on a principle of unpredictability": that is (to turn the avant-garde into the old hat), a kind of modified surrealism, in which many individual passages make sense but most are hermetically sealed from the others…. The effect of The Ship's Orchestra is that of some play for disembodied voices on the Third Programme: well-executed in its way, flatteringly taxing to undergo, but likely to make the audience exit looking puzzled.

That would be a pity. Even though Fisher seems to distrust critics (note the quiet deadliness of "Critics Can Bleed"), and in his poem "The Making of the Book" describes poetry's purpose as "constantly to set up little enmities", he also sees poetry as having a more positive function. "A poem", he said in [a] 1973 interview, "has business to exist … if there's a reasonable chance that somebody may have his perceptions rearranged by having read it", and the reader entering this volume soon finds this happening to him in Fisher's first long poem City…. Its use of interspersed prose passages, and its location, a Birmingham "which has already turned into a city of the mind", anticipates the Geoffrey Hill of Mercian Hymns….

City is really an impersonal requiem for Fisher's home town, a nineteenth-century industrial creation altered and emptied by the war, and not yet ready to put on the post-war identity decreed for it by planners. The scene, a ghost-like palimpsest of buildings and people, present and past, was one which no other poet had thought to record…. The tone, a curious yet moving detachment, is characteristic of Fisher; but the rhythm has yet to take on the hardness one finds in his spare, mature verse. It is the prose passages, with their sombre sequence of clauses, which look forward to that; and they also transmit a sense, sharp and elusive at once, of the transfiguring of the ordinary, and an uncertainty about that transfiguring, which I take to be Fisher's most valuable "subversion" of the reader's way of looking at the world….

The influence of William Carlos Williams, together with a shared...

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response to place and to the visual, links Fisher with Charles Tomlinson and Basil Bunting; and in the 1960s he moved towards more open forms and generally spikier, if not always short, poems. "In Touch" specifically invokes Williams'sPictures from Brueghel…. Fisher stated that, if he had to adopt "any poetic slogan", Williams's doctrine "No ideas but in things" would be it. In "The Memorial Fountain" he describes himself as a "realist", who is "working / to distinguish an event / from an opinion", and he pursues this self-denying occupation through a number of spare sequences which (together with City) are his most important and original contribution to post-war British poetry: "Matrix"; the sixteen (once twenty-seven) Birmingham poems called "Handsworth Liberties"; the more recent, more mellow "Wonders of Obligation"; and the earlier group, set on the North Devon-Somerset border, entitled "Glenthorne Poems". A quotation from any of these may serve to demonstrate how Fisher's cool search for concreteness and objectivity can transcend itself, becoming an intense, perfect blend of observer and "thing" observed….

The achievement of … the floating of "real things into a fictive world" is for Fisher fraught with difficulty. At the end of "Glenthorne Poems" he fears that things seen "are already / three parts idea", and in "Wonders of Obligation" he remarks—with a touch of regret which the reader may find it unnecessary to share—that "my life keeps / leaking out of my poetry to me / in all directions". It is significant that the momentary glitter of light on water, the catching of objects edge-on to the air, are recurrent motifs in Fisher's poetry. His chosen task is a balancing act between perception and what it perceives, and his compulsion to keep on attempting it—the subject of "Cut Worm"—makes one feel that, at least in terms of basic impulse, the poet with whom Fisher has most in common is Wallace Stevens.

Fisher's range is of course smaller; he makes no claim to cover more than "a fairly limited node of perceptions"…. Some may find Fisher's poetic territory too rarefied for their liking; for my own part I am sorry he has reduced its extent and its temperature by omitting from this collected volume two such humane poems of place as "Kingsbury Mill" [and "Abraham Darby's Bridge"]…. Nevertheless, Fisher's work has much to offer the reader who is willing to concentrate as the poet himself does….

Philip Gardner, "A City of the Mind," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4068, March 20, 1981, p. 314.


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