To begin with a point of theory: appreciation of a given text is bound up with awareness of form. The term is 'awareness' rather than 'consciousness', because one may apprehend certain signals without consciously analysing them. The contention would be that a good deal of misapprehension takes place because readers invoke inappropriate criteria. It is no good, when reading a tragedy by Shakespeare, complaining that nobody 'in real life' talks in blank verse. One should look at what the text is doing rather than seeing what it doesn't do.
What Shakespearian tragedy misses out, with regard to 'naturalism', it gains in stylization — which allows for the foreshortening of plot, short cuts across action, enhancement of character, heightening of speech. Nobody in a downtown bar would remark 'The multitudinous seas incarnadine / Making the green one red'. But Macbeth is not in a downtown bar, nor is he a naturalistic character. He is not defining, but representative; in this case, representative of what happens to a man possessed by evil. Nor is this an ordinary man but a superman, a hero, a being larger than any of us, with larger virtues and larger faults. He will therefore, appropriately, use a wider range of language, with heights we are none of us going to reach, and with self-deflationary commentaries. His diction anticipates the Miltonic sublime, with its Latinate polysyllables — 'multitudinous', 'incarnadine' — and also comprises, in contrast, the bleak Anglo-Saxon simplicity of 'making the green one red'.
What has been said here is a way into reading poetic drama. Poetic drama loses 'naturalism' in favour of poetry.
Especially among contemporary texts, the reader is liable to a good deal of genre confusion. It is historically true that certain writers, now accounted classics, suffered neglect or resistance in their own time. Examples of this that could be propounded include Blake, Wordsworth, Emily (but not Charlotte) Bronte, Melville (but not Hawthorne), Whitman, Browning, Eliot, Lawrence, Joyce: to go no further. One reason for this is that readers approached a given text with expectations that were irrelevant. Dr Johnson said that if you read Richardson's Clarissa for the story, you might as well hang yourself. If this is true, what else, other than 'story', does Clarissa give us? In that particular instance, one could say 'psychological analysis' — we see more deeply into Clarissa than into any previous fictional character, and this in its time brought about a great access of self-consciousness by providing means of access — the very prose, the nature of the detail.
Similarly, Moby Dick is not so much a story about catching whales — perused as such, it has its longueurs — but an allegory of Man assuming the task of God, exacting vengeance, and violating character and distorting circumstance in so doing.
When it comes to twentieth-century writing, a good many texts are misunderstood and rejected because readers approach them with inappropriate expectations. As it happens, and this is the nub of the argument, a crucial genre-confusion may be identified that has led to unnecessary difficulties in reading a whole hantle of contemporary poets.
The decline of poetic drama led to the rise of the dramatic monologue. The effect was for key speeches to detach themselves from dramatic context and, in lieu, to supply that context from hints within their own framework. Thus, we do not need a whole plot concerning an evil duke and his murdered wife. The substance of that story is given in a single speech, the 56 lines of 'My Last Duchess'. A prime effect of the text, however, is not to tell a story but to reveal a character; in this case, a repulsive one.
That is the form of the dramatic monologue: it is ostensibly spoken by a person other than the author himself; it embodies some revelation of character; it feels like drama.
There is, however, a distinction to be made among specimens of the form. Some monologues are spoken in the void, addressed to no one in particular, and therefore should properly be termed soliloquies. The protagonist of Tennyson's 'Ulysses' speaks quite dramatically — there is a sensational recording by the late Sir Lewis Casson — but he is not addressing anyone, unless it be his fellow-mariners, who, however, remain quite inert and play no role in the drama. Whereas in Browning's 'Fra Lippo Lippi' the monk addresses the guard who has captured him, and, in winning him round, records his reaction to events and thus renders him a presence in the poem. That is monologue proper, and suggests the inception of a development, the Interrupted Monologue.
Even though not separately recognized, Interrupted Monologue is a form significant in quantity and quality among twentieth-century poets. Characteristically, there is a dominant voice that narrates or explains the central action. This voice, however, is continually set in perspective, and its sentiments commented upon, by another voice that, though subordinate, breaks in, remarks upon, and, in short, interrupts.
It is possible to read an Interrupted Monologue as lyric, as narrative, as soliloquy; however, in each instance, something of value is lost and the reading is necessarily a simplified one. Just as often, it is possible to read an Interrupted Monologue without being aware of any form at all, in which case it is quite likely that the reader will be puzzled, baffled or repelled.
This is one reason why Peter Redgrove, though certainly esteemed, is not on the whole regarded as a great poet. He writes in various forms, but the Interrupted Monologue is highly characteristic of his work. It is developed from the monologue as evinced in 'Fra Lippo Lippi'; one that involves not only a dominating voice, but also an active interlocutor.
One major poem is 'At the White Monument'. Here the interlocutor is crucial, to get across the appearance of the peculiar character who is telling the story. The story involves the owner of a great house who tries to suppress the great winds that sweep through it by filling it with liquid cement, and succeeds, but only at the expense of inundating his wife and children. The house then explodes into flame and leaves only a calcined sarcophagus, which the ignorant populace take to be a white monument. The story borders on the impossible, but is made all the more effective because of the prosaic personality of the man who listens to it. This man, this interlocutor, has been sent by the local council to evict the narrator from the monument which they believe to be theirs but which the narration shows to be his. The narrator dominates the poem, with, as seen by the interlocutor, his moon-pate, flashing white eyes, waving hands — and, as heard by the interlocutor, preposterous story. That story is the core of the poem, but the other's reactions form a kind of commentary:
The other snuffed the wholesome green Oxygen of the cut grass gladly,
And wondered why his eyes wouldn't shut, and could he never get The smoke out of his nostrils now . . .
— a reference to the bizarre appearance of the narrator, with his semblance of having been scorched in a great fire; which, of course, he has been.
This concept of a prosaic interlocutor listening to an extravagant storyteller is a feature in several of Redgrove's best poems, some of which are couched in a lyrical prose, a kind of extension of free verse. Let us consider 'The Nature of Cold Weather'. An apparently dominant voice, representing the common man, is gradually encroached upon by a voice representing the winter. This voice is indicated by italics. The phrases in roman type represent the few ejaculations that the Common Man, at length stifled under the snow, is able to emit:
As one slow ache, out in the windy snow,
Time to observe a few things as the flesh
Squeezes pain downwards, bleaching skin into my heart,
My innermost things, underground.
Two ponds of blank grey ice with grizzled reeds,
A heaped-up chine with two dark rabbit-holes,
A slash of almost-frozen stream with meeting teeth,
Clashing and tinkling, with brisk beard tugging at its banks,
This voice controls the central sections of the poem, but gradually dies away, and the Common Man once more takes over, representing the thaw. The winter appears (in italics) as one last gasp, while the world melts.
First the houses burn his fingers
Flushing up brown soil along his arms,
His whiteness smutches, and the pricking comes intense,
Freckles and patches, wens and mud-craters
Where those beautiful declivities shone,
And, long before, his eyes broke, and he is blind . . .
We do not hear directly from the winter again, not in this poem. There is a reference to his remnants floating down the river in a wonderful transition whereby the voice of the Common Man takes us into spring:
The sun shines on the green meadows, The chines and valleys, tufts and hillocks Quilted with daisies and with buttercups, Misty with gossamer and pollen, And his heels drum in the stream As the playing children come . . .
A related example is 'Mr. Waterman'. This also is narrated by what seems to be a common man, but in this case the narrator is a conduit for the actions of a hyperactive pond, anthropomorphized into a humanoid kind of waterfall, capable of entering a house, seducing the mistress thereof, and hypothetically joining up with other sources of water to inundate the universe. This discourse, in roman type, is interrupted by the terse comments of a kindly but uncomprehending psychiatrist, in italics. The poem begins:
'Now, we're quite private in here. You can tell me your troubles. The pond, I think you said. . .'
'We never really liked that pond in the garden. At times it was choked with a sort of weed, which, if you pulled one thread, gleefully unravelled until you had an empty basin before you and the whole of the pond in a soaking heap at your side. Then at other times it was as clear as gin . . .'
'Very well. Then what happened?'
'Near the pond was a small bell hung on a bracket, which the milkman used to ring as he went out to tell us upstairs in the bedroom that we could go down and make the early-morning tea . . . One morning, very early indeed, it tinged loudly and when I looked out I saw that the empty bottles we had put out the night before were full of bright green pondwater . . .
In 'The Sermon' the interruptions are more dramatic, not to say theatrical. This poem has been performed on television by Michael Hordern and on radio by Donald
Wolfit. The parson preaches a highly inflammatory discourse, involving an extravagantly pantheistic notion of God and an idiosyncratic theory of heaven, that causes the congregation to turn from questioning to objurgation — their most sustained interruption yet:
Minister: But God cannot die, and by the same token no more can we! Remember that whatever happens cannot hurt us, because we are God — not hurt us permanently, anyway. Brothers — and I am speaking to God — do not sit about wailing here for God's second-coming-before-it-is-too-late — he is already here, and We will be There, each of us a shard of him, a ward of him, a bright, piercing, secure, razor-sharp splinter of him, and heaven . . . where no moth nor rust . . . Matthew 6 . . . We are already Here . . . and More of Me arrives every day!
Congregation: We've had enough. This is blasphemy. You are Antichrist. You are the Devil. God is not mocked! In his own house too! And I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy . . . (Revelation 13) . . .
A great deal of Redgrove's effect is gained by highly alliterative diction running through an enormous dynamic range, from a whisper to a roar. Taken as lyric poetry, it can seem over-stated. Taken as drama, it may be regarded as grotesque. Read, however, as a separate genre, the details fall into place. There is a high degree of styl-ization, and the narrative may be interpreted as allegory, but much of the effect arises from contrast, and that contrast is between the prosaic and the poetic; the matter-of-fact and the visionary; what usually happens and what, on the borders of conception, could happen. Much is lost if the reader decides to consider the poem as being spoken by a single voice.
Without understanding the nature of the interlocutor, the text will seem unanchored, a projection into fantasy. The interlocutor provides a framework of possible reference. It is a failure in recognizing this crucial form that has resulted in the underrating of a number of modern poems. Form sets the pattern of expectation. It helps to determine the approach to a given text. If the reader is not aware of the form, he or she is liable to read the text in some manner inappropriate to what is being proffered.
The poet most akin to Redgrove, though this is a matter of analogy rather than influence, is Francis Berry. Berry is pre-eminently a chronicler of historical incident, and the foundation of Greenland is the subject of one of his most evocative poems: 'Illnesses and Ghosts at the West Settlement'. The venture is seen largely through the eyes of Gudrid, daughter-in-law of Eirik the Red, but her plaintive, hesitant tones are perpetually broken in upon by the masculine entities who inhabit the poem. They are all ghosts now. The basic structure is a recollection by the spirit of Gudrid hovering as a ghost above the settlement where she suffered so dreadfully a thousand years ago — interrupted, from time to time, by gruff interpolations from the long-dead Eirik the Red:
Eirik: These Ghosts and these Illnesses in the West Settlement. Well, what about them, and what about those bodies — My son's among them — in that row of black boxes? Brought them back, you have, Christian.
O but they'll smell, Christians bringing illness to Brattahild.
With that story and what you did last winter.
And so am I, and so is every man, woman and child Who ever came out to Greenland, its East Settlement, its
West Settlement, Its sixteen fine churches, its farms, its tall-masted men and all that, So dead and so dead.
How we all came to be dead Many learned discuss, but I know Because I was living there and dead am there now . . .
The interpolations, from Eirik the Red and others, provide a context. There is an alternative version of this poem, published in The Northern Review, 1 (1965), but not collected in a volume. It takes the form of a monologue spoken by Gudrid. Other voices are woven in, by way of quotation, but, though this is done cunningly, the overall effect tends too far towards the grotesque. That is because this particular voice, a female voice redolent of pathos, cannot meaningfully accommodate the highly masculine interrogators that occur in the poem as we have it in Ghosts of Greenland. It goes to show that the Interrupted Monologue is a recognizable genre, and not just a generic sub-division.
A curious feature of the Interrupted Monologue is its adaptability. This is not a question of subject only but of basic structure. A close friend of Redgrove, the late Martin Bell, has a poem, 'Headmaster: Modern Style'. It is a monologue spoken in disgruntled tones by a junior teacher in a school:
This leader's lonely, all right! He sees to that. Inspectors, governors, parents, boys and staff — His human instruments — are all shocked back From the stunned area round him, sound of his voice . . .
Yet the voice itself is never directly heard. This prejudiced auditor is not explicitly interrupted; however, in effect, there are interruptions from the headmaster. It is he who is the central character, even though he exists in indirect speech:
A ground-staff commission in the R.A.F.
On heat with reminiscence on Battle-of-Britain day.
Knew how to get what they wanted, anything, any equipment
They knew their stuff, all right, when they occupied Germany With nudges, winks, and Cockney chuckles . . .
That last line quoted is by way of being a stage direction. Keeping the headmaster at a distance by means of indirect speech is a way of preventing him from overwhelming the poem and gaining a factitious sympathy. This involves the narrative in a considerable play of tonal effect, ranging from the mock-heroic to the near-demotic, often in the space of a remarkably few lines. The preponderantly masculine tone of the basic narration permits this, as a more delicate or yielding fabric of utterance would not.
Just as the headmaster may be said to interrupt the narrative of his disgruntled junior teacher, so, in a quite distinct key, does the deputy head:
Let's turn aside
As Augustine might turn from a chapter on pride and concupiscence,
And consider poor Joe, Conk's deputy.
Joe does administration. It does for him. He's done by it . . .
The poem as a whole may be taken as a comic elegy for an authentic villain. It ends with the voice of the junior teacher assuming a rhetorical grandeur, made absurd by the immediate context - which shows a backward class modelling clay into headmaster-dolls - and by the absurd properties involved in this peroration:
Give him a surplice of toffee-paper and hymn-book leaves.
Let bottle-tops stinking of yesterday's milk be gathered for his medals.
At the other extreme, Interrupted Monologue may be distinguishable from dialogue only by dint of setting the one voice in measurable superiority to the other. To illustrate the point, it is necessary to go back in time, to an earlier stage of the twentieth century. Edward Thomas, something of a hero to Martin Bell, is best known for his lyrics. His dialogue poems, however, are technically more intricate and carry a considerable weight of experience. Take, for example, one of his lesser-known pieces, 'Wind and Mist'. This is essentially a foreshortened chronicle of one man's life. It is not, however, told as a straight narrative. Two men meet by chance, and greet each other. The conversation proceeds as though by commonplace interchange, the one man complimenting the landscape and so drawing the other into qualifying that enthusiasm and moving on to a greater intensity of language: The first man goes on to remark, 'You had a garden / Of flint and clay, too', and this draws the response:
True; that was real enough.
The flint was the one crop that never failed.
The clay first broke my heart, and then my back;
It is this second man who proves to be the main speaker. He proceeds to narrate the birth of a child, and this part of the narrative is interrupted by the polite hope of the interlocutor that mother and baby were spared. In replying to this interpolation, the poem reaches its most sustained passage. However, that continuity is set off and enhanced by the framework of casual encounter, and the resultant question-and-answer technique. After all the interruptions, the verse soars to its climax:
But flint and clay and childbirth were too real For this cloud-castle. I had forgot the wind. Pray do not let me get on to the wind. You would not understand about the wind. It is my subject, and compared with me Those who have always lived on the firm ground Are quite unreal in this matter of the wind . . .
Given this level of intensity, brought about by alliteration and repetition, no interruption is likely or necessary, and the main speaker's narrative concludes the poem. Yet the narrative is never soliloquy. We are always conscious of the much younger plainsman being confronted by the Old Man of the Mountains, obdurately retentive of his past. Towards the end, his voice seems to fall in pitch, and he comes to a conclusion:
But one word. I want to admit That I would try the house once more, if I could; As I should like to try being young again.
This is one of a number of poems in the oeuvre of Edward Thomas that may be loosely associated together as Interrupted Monologue. Analogous works include 'Up in the Wind', 'The Chalk-Pit', 'House and Man', possibly 'As the Team's Head-Brass'. Thomas may have learned from his friend and contemporary, Robert Frost, who uses dialogue very freely in various narrative poems, such as 'Death of the Hired Man', 'The Mountain', 'A Hundred Collars', 'Home Burial' and 'Blueberries'. All of these may be found in Frost's second book, North of Boston. The dialogue in these poems, however, is more evenly balanced. One does not, as is the case with Edward Thomas, have the sense of a central voice being interrupted.
The interruptions may be very slight, or almost non-existent, as in 'The Songbook of Sebastian Arurruz' by Geoffrey Hill. This author has a secure place among the poets of the mid-century and, indeed, later. Nevertheless, 'The Songbook' may not have had the kind of attention that it deserves. Certainly, it seems pre-eminent among Geoffrey Hill's works. The poem in question seems less a soliloquy than a monologue, very definitely addressed to some one: the beckoning fair one, the unattainable beloved, the sphinx without a secret. One might suggest that the tone is akin to that of a novel by Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, except that, here, no 'end' is foreseeable.
That bitter voice grinds on, and on, and the fact that little response is elicited from the person addressed, accentuates the agony. The married woman with whom the speaker is in love appears by way of implication:
'One cannot lose what one has not possessed.'
So much for that abrasive gem.
. . . See how each fragment kindles as we turn it . . .
Admittedly, this is a borderline case. One could always argue that, since the woman never says anything that is recognizable as communication, the monologue can scarcely be termed 'interrupted'. To such an objection, the reply might be that the monologue is palpably speech, and speech directed at a particular woman, whose very silence and inaccessibility renders the sense of a presence. One would have to concede, nevertheless, that a more identifiable example of this form is 'A Correct Compassion' by James Kirkup.
Geoffrey Hill must have been conscious of this poem, near-contemporary as he was with Kirkup on the staff of Leeds University, and indeed one would not need to be proximate to Kirkup to know 'A Correct Compassion', since it was a show-piece of the 1950s. It describes a kind of heart operation technically known as a mitral stenosis valvulotomy; that is to say, the cutting open of adhesions that have formed between the cusps of a valve. The poem, however, is more than the description of an operation. Were it only that, it could have been more appropriately phrased in prose. The poem refers, beyond the immediate present, to the act of writing poetry and, beyond that, to the creative skills of the masters of particular crafts, which the author interprets in terms of compassion; a correct compassion.
The poem celebrates skill. Its main voice is that of the guest, the onlooker, the man deeming himself without the talent of the surgeon — the surgeon who, in his turn, stands for the master of a craft. The onlooker addresses that master:
Cleanly, sir, you went to the core of the matter.
Using the purest kind of wit, a balance of belief and art,
You with a curious nervous elegance laid bare
The root of life, and put your finger on its beating heart . . .
That invocation to 'sir', the surgeon, is, so to speak, voiced silently. However, it typifies the utterance as monologue, rather than as soliloquy. There is a controlled ambiguity of utterance. Those opening lines could refer to almost any activity requiring skill and self-discipline, be it playing Bach on the clavichord, composing a satire — 'the purest kind of wit', 'nervous elegance' — creating a work of visual art — 'a calligraphic master', 'the flowing stroke is drawn' — or, indeed, writing this present poem. The heart operation can be taken as a literal act of skill, for it is detailed enough to be authentic, or as a sustained metaphor with regard to performance and composition. Further, the voice of the onlooker intensifies to the accents almost of a love poem, proving there is emotion behind the discipline:
The heart, black-veined, swells like a fruit about to burst,
But goes on beating, love's poignant image bleeding at the dart Of a more grievous passion, as a bird, dreaming of flight, sleeps on Within its leafy cage . . .
Up to now, the narrative voice has proceeded, rising in intensity, with no more than brief interruptions from the surgeon — 'A local anaesthetic in the cardiac nerve'. However, after this throbbing presentation of life — 'love's poignant image' — the voice of the surgeon takes over, very much that of the man of action:
'I make a purse-string suture here, with a reserve
Suture, which I must make first, and deeper,
As a safeguard, should the other burst. In the cardiac nerve
I inject again a local anaesthetic. Could we have fresh towels to cover
The voice of the surgeon is itself interrupted, by an otiose circumstance, marring the discipline of this transaction, and he rebukes the culprit: 'If you have to cough, you will do it outside this theatre'.
The onlooker in a way is interrupting the surgeon: he doesn't cough, but he is present as spectator, and not even a medical one. It is the onlooker whose voice embodies the dominant of the poem, its experiential core. Yet it is the surgeon whose voice takes over, just after the formal climax of the poem, in tones very much of this world, practical, pragmatic. Nevertheless, after the outside world resumes with the sound of people breathing and a car starting up outside, the lyrical tone comes in again, to sum up:
For this is imagination's other place, Where only necessary things are done, with the supreme and grave Dexterity that ignores technique; with proper grace
Informing a correct compassion, that performs its love, and makes it live.
That is the end of the poem. The onlooker has again taken up the narrative, by way of comment on the operation, in a quiet manner resembling that of the beginning. Such an interplay of dreamer and man-of-action was a leitmotiv in the middle of the century, when this poem was written, though 'A Correct Compassion' is one of the supreme examples of such interplay, and has lived on long enough to risk being forgotten.
The poets considered here are among the finest of the mid-century. Yet there is a relatively sparse occurrence of at least some of them in the anthologies. This suggests that their names are in process of slipping off the computer. The Collected Poems of Martin Bell were published in 1988; those of Francis Berry in 1994; those of James Kirkup in 1996. They did not, however, seem to attract reviews in what might have been thought many of the appropriate journals. No definitive edition of Peter Red-grove has ever been issued. His immense output has certainly attracted an extent of comment, but one would question whether much of that comment is sufficiently discerning. Some commentators seem to regard his work as little more than an explosion of imagery. Even when discussion is more perceptive than that, still one may question whether there is a due recognition of the tough structure underpinning his verbal efflorescence.
What seems to have failed a number of these poets is the approach to reading favoured by contemporary critics. If the critics do not get lost in the proliferation of image chains, then they seem to extrapolate - as though finding a philosophy or a set of political values in a given author's work is going to tell us much of any value concerning his poetry! Every critic has it in his or her power to decide on the approach made to a literary work. Supposing the work not to be utterly obscure, some approaches are bound to be more relevant than others. It is the critic's job to choose the most relevant of them all.
There is no point in catechizing a literary work for one quality if it exhibits another. The fault may lie in an inflexibility of approach on the part of the reader. This is one reason why criticism habitually lags so far behind creative work. The critic bases an approach on past experience, and only with reluctance extends that approach to accommodate demands upon sensibility that are unexpected. Such demands, however, are made by any genuinely distinguished text. The fact that they are seldom met is clearly seen in the relative neglect experienced by such English poets of the mid-century as have been noticed in the present disquisition.
Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle (1978), The
Wise Wound. London: Gollancz. Edward Lucie-Smith and Philip Hobsbaum (eds) (1963), A Group Anthology. London: Oxford University Press. Philip Hobsbaum (1979), Tradition and Experiment, ch. 12. London: Macmillan.
Neil Roberts (1994), The Lover, The Dreamer and the World: The Poetry of Peter Redgrove. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. Francis Berry (1958), Poets' Grammar: Person, Time and Mood in Poetry. London: Routledge.
G. Wilson Knight (1971), Neglected Powers: Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature, ch. 17. London: Routledge.
Martin Bell (1988), Complete Poems, ed. Peter Porter. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.
Martin Bell (1997), Reverdy Translations. Reading: Whiteknights Press.
Edward Thomas (1917), A Literary Pilgrim in England. London: Methuen; rep. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Edna Longley (ed.) (1981), A Language Not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas. Manchester: Carcanet Press.
Andrew Motion (1980), The Poetry of Edward Thomas. London: Routledge.
Geoffrey Hill (1984), The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas. London: Andre Deutsch.
Merle E. Brown (1980), Double Lyric: Divisiveness and Communal Creativity in Recent English Poetry, chs 1—4. London: Routledge.
Peter Robinson (ed.) (1985), Geoffrey Hill: Essays on His Work. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
James Kirkup (1996), Omens of Disaster: Collected Shorter Poems, Vol. 1, Introduction by Philip Hobsbaum. Salzburg and Oxford: University of Salzburg.
James Kirkup (1988), I, of All People: An Autobiography of Youth. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
James Hogg (ed.) (1998), Diversions: A Celebration for James Kirkup on His Eightieth Birthday. Salzburg and Oxford: University of Salzburg.
PART II Poetic Movements
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