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A Necessary Restitution

Billy Mills

The Collected Poems of Terence Tiller, Todd Swift (ed), Eyewear Publishing, 334 pp, £20, ISBN:978-1911335405

The 1940s remain, even at this distance, the most critically neglected period of twentieth century English verse. Sandwiched between the MacSpaunday-dominated 30s and the Movement poets who came to prominence in the 50s, the 40s poets still tend to be dismissed as a minor-key group of New Apocalypse sensualists, a last gasp of the Romantic impulse, who were at the time and often still are seen as an aberration from the true and proper path of British poetry. Given that the 1940s saw the emergence of such key figures as Lawrence Durrell, WS Graham, Keith Douglas, Lynette Roberts, Kathleen Raine and Norman Nicholson, the persistence of this view is little short of remarkable, and reflects the lingering power of the Movement as arbiters of poetic taste.

An alternative view is that it may well be that it was MacSpaunday that was the aberration, and that a return to the Romantic tradition in the 40s was nothing more than a restatement of the primacy of Romanticism in poetry, and in all the arts, since the late eighteenth century. Be that as it may, it is clear that the poetry of that less visible decade was a direct and critical response to what went before, and this response was multi-faceted.

For Auden and his fellow social realists, the world was to be understood, to a greater or lesser degree, through the lens of a particular kind of Marxist thought, with its essentially Victorian view of history as linear, the arrow of time pointing on to inevitable progress. This was married to a relatively unproblematic view of language and its relationship with the world the poet wished to evoke and the ideas he (invariably a he) wanted to expound. In the 30s at least, the MacSpaunday poets had something to say and every confidence in poetry as a vehicle through which they could say it. The result was a body of work, much of it very powerful, that was ironic in tone, impersonal, favouring (in theory at least) the communal over the individual, suspicious of the profound; what their Irish contemporary Brian Coffey described as the poetry of the audenary.

Of course, decades are not impermeable containers of the homogenous, and not all 30s poets were the same. Indeed there was a strong counter-current of writing that moved to a different rhythm, or set of rhythms, to the mainstream. Dylan Thomas, George Barker, David Gascoyne and the small group of English Surrealists associated with him forged their own individual styles during this time, and that most individual of all twentieth century British poets, David Jones, published his Arthurian epic of WWI, In Parenthesis, in 1937. This poem, in which history is absorbed into the mythic, appeared just a year after TS Eliot published “Burnt Norton”, whose opening lines are an implicit rejection of linear time:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Barker and Gascoyne were to discover their voices in the decade that followed, while Thomas and Eliot, the Eliot of The Waste Land and Four Quartets, along with Yeats, were major influences on the younger poets who came after them. And many of these poets were beginning to publish before the end of the 30s, in student magazines out of Oxford and Cambridge and the anthology The New Apocalypse, which appeared in 1939.

Something had clearly happened to cause this shift, and that something was the imminence, and then the actuality, of a second world war. In the face of such a definite instance of history repeating itself, it must have been difficult to accept the idea that time was a steady march towards a socialist utopia, and ironic indifference to the difficulties of expression through language may well have seemed an unaffordable luxury. Auden himself tacitly acknowledged this shift by sailing for America as a prelude to more or less abandoning his left-wing politics.

The most immediately visible effect of WWII on poetry was the emergence of a small army of war poets, both in active service and on the home front. Much of the work written by these poets was of poor quality and has rightly been forgotten, although soldier-poets like Douglas, Hamish Henderson, Henry Reed and FT Prince wrote poems of the first rank. The war years also saw the rise of regional poets: Nicholson in Cumbria, Jack Clemo in Cornwall, RS Thomas, Roberts (and others) in Wales; poets who for reason of gender, occupation or health were not called up to the services. In an essay published not long before he died, Nicholson expressed the fear that his would be the last generation of British regional poets. In retrospect, his fears were probably unfounded.

Another key group consisted of non-combatant British writers who were living abroad, and the most important of these was the group that formed around the journal Personal Landscape in Egypt. These included, among others, Durrell, Bernard Spencer, Olivia Manning and Terence Tiller, whose Collected Poems has just been published by Eyewear Publishing under the careful editing of Todd Swift. This handsome volume contains all the poems from Tiller’s six collections published between 1941 and 1979, but unlike many such collected, there are no false starts or abandoned works included, partly, one assumes, because the foreword to Tiller’s last book, That Singing Mesh, includes a plea to his friends to destroy any unpublished works of his “in typescript or manuscript, other than those printed here”.

Tiller was an accidental exile, posted to Cairo to lecture just before the war, and his three 1940s volumes, Poems (1941), The Inward Animal (1943) and Unarm, Eros (1947) reflect his position as an uneasy cosmopolitan. The Personal Landscape writers were not in any sense aligned with the New Apocalypse poets and, according to GS Fraser, who served in Cairo and published with the Apocalypse poets, they should be viewed as neoclassical. Nevertheless, they were not immune to the tenor of the times; Durrell’s great novel sequence The Alexandria Quartet remains one of the great expositions of both non-linear time and the unreliability of language in British literature and the apocalyptic tone is evident early in Tiller’s work, as in these lines from “Ode”, the second poem in his first book:

The gnashing axes, and the lightning, fell;
the tower knelt down in dust, hell shook the gardens;
an alien victory thundered in the wheel.

The influence of Yeats and Eliot is there in the images of tower, dust, garden and wheel. Thomas, who might be seen as the presiding spirit of the 1940s, is also a presence in these early poems:

Now as I lie, owls in the dark gardens
– swift for destroying, sudden circlers – wail
for no grief

Fraser reports Tiller saying “I don’t want experience, experience is a distraction”, and this is reflected in the early poems, some of them dating back to 1935, in his first book. These are metaphysical poems of personal dislocation, inward looking, filtering the world out. Nouns and pronouns refer not so much to actual people, places and things as to the idea of these phenomena. Language here acts as a kind of barrier between the self and the world outside the poet. 

Locked in my shell of bone and blood
an ocean says diminished things;
the echo of the lover’s head,
her million mouths and green tongues.

Towards the end of Poems, experience in the shape of war forces its way in, so that by the final poem, “Egypt 1940”, “us”, “we” and “our” reference an actual community, those who find themselves caught up in great movements that lie beyond their control, for whom “time passes and none saves us”. From here on, Eros and Thanatos are no longer mere concepts to be held in the mind, but the facts of everyday existence. And Tiller the poet begins to find his own voice.

The foreword to The Inward Animal makes this change explicit, with Tiller explaining that the book is structured around a pattern of experience, or set of experiences that “must now have been shared by many”. As Swift says in his introductory essay, this experience was the mass displacement caused by war, a displacement on a scale that many readers of this book will find it difficult to comprehend, although we are now seeing a return to mass displacement, a fact that makes Tiller’s poetry of the war years suddenly more apt to the times.

Tiller’s poetic was well-suited to the absorption of this displacement; the dislocated individual of the earlier poems blends with the shared, communal experience relatively seamlessly, with many poems in the book being tied explicitly to specific North African locations. This is most clearly seen in a set of five elegies that run through the collection like a spine. They are both public and private poems, explicit and opaque in equal measure:

Now only blood and a black wind; and cold
that is not of clean growing things
– March in the moorland’s planted wings,
or unleashed muscle in the dancing field.

It is revealing to read these poems alongside Hamish Henderson’s near-contemporary Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. A serving soldier who also moved in Cairo literary circles, Henderson’s free-verse poems are superficially more “Modernist” than Tiller’s tightly controlled lyrics.  They are however, and understandably, more direct and empirical in tone, more confident in language’s power of transparent expression, and more purely focused on communal experience than Tiller’s poems of the dislocated self in a disjunctive world:

Endure, endure. There is as yet no solution
and no short cut, no escape and no remedy
but our human iron.
         And this Egypt teaches us
that mankind, put to the torment, can bear
on their breast the stone tomb of immolation
for millennia. The wind. We can build our cairn.

The Tiller elegies develop his sense of the linked opposition between the erotic and death, for instance in the closing lines of “Elegy V”:

Egypt is pane and bed
on which – beyond which – you and I can dare,
careless of pity, careless of circling fear,
          to love each other.

These first two collections are arranged as a series of numbered poems, some titled, some not, and run on across pages. In Unarm, Eros, Tiller abandons this arrangement for a more conventional system of individual named poems, each one starting on a new page. As a consequence, the tendency is to read these poems as discrete entities rather than looking for anaphoric and cataphoric references across poems. Tiller continues to explore “the serious motions of desire”, but with Eros unarmed, Thanatos recedes somewhat into the background, for the most part. Again, many of the poems are tied to specific places, and the people who appear in them are increasingly three-dimensional.

The heart of the book is a run of five poems that take off from a visit (or set of visits) to the front to lecture to the troops. Swift sees a kind of proto-Movement tone in these poems, drawing comparisons between some of Tiller’s phraseology (camels are “baffled a little, a little unsure”, the troops are “wanting girls and beer”) and that of Larkin a decade later. I’m inclined to disagree. To me, these poems show Tiller exploring another new experience, one that is perhaps more exotic, to him, than Egypt, and doing so in its own terms. Where Larkin saw himself as writing a poetry that belonged to the tradition of ordinary English common sense (whatever that may be), ultimately Tiller turns his back on the ordinary, and, in “Armistice”, the poem that ends the sequence, reverts to his wonted preference for the individual and subjective over the shared external world:

Unarm, Eros: fighting love is over,
in from the battle, drinking through a stem
female charity for as flower or lover.

These three volumes, collecting work written over twelve years and published in six, comprise half of Tiller’s oeuvre. In 1946, he moved to London and went to work for the BBC, where his chief claim to fame was as the producer of the first adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. He also produced a “translation” of John Gower into modern English, but no new original verse until the publication of Reading a Medal in 1957. As if to signal continuity across the gap, the eponymous opening poem starts with a lower-case letter (one of only two poems in the book to do so), and uniquely ends with no full stop. The titular medal bears an image of Pallas on one face and Aphrodite on the other, a by now familiar pairing.

Despite this pagan opening, Christian thought, always present in the earlier work, dominates much of this book. It can, at times, offer a very bitter consolation, as in Brompton Cemetery, where stones marking “the natural dust of man’s dishonour” lead to a meditation on the permanence of death, a state in which “the thoughts you thought eternal, and / your bodies’ endless reckless need, / are a scar in wasted ground”.  However, the high point of the book, and probably the high point of Tiller’s career, is the three-part “Case Studies”, a sequence made up of “Summer Idyll/The Arcadian Poets”; “Autumn Pastoral/The Metaphysicals” and “Winter Elegy/The Shakespearian Tragic Heroes”.

The sequence moves through the wheel of the year as a journey through the mythology and psychology of love. Summer opens the poem with images of fertility, as sand dunes become breasts, foliage lacy garments and the poet’s heart stands erect. The holiday landscape is transmogrified into an Arcadian Eden through an evocation of first love, and the poem moves through a cycle of courting, marriage, birth and nourishment, all against a backdrop of the sea.

For autumn, the speaker turns his back on “mist and mellow fruitfulness” and opts for the deep forest, among the falling leaves and incipient decay. Here, the erect heart becomes a “rod of blood”, lovers are separated, not by distance but by time, and joy turns to pain:

I choose what love became, this troubled season.
Only our bodies being separate remember
fields in their summer of quick early amber
or, through the spare and breathy glass of this horizon,
themselves a cornucopia.

Winter moves indoors, an undifferentiated room, from which the view is a landscape not unlike Macbeth’s blasted heath. The speaker ponders age and mortality, and, as in the cemetery earlier, there is “after me not future”. Here love becomes Love, not the sensuous physical act, but the cold idea, and death is in the ascendant, brought home by the “ripe full circling of the wheel”, the poem ending in images of barren waste.

The circle was finally closed eleven years later, when “Case Studies IV, Spring Ceremonies (Tristan and Iseult)” was included in Notes for a Myth. We are back in the world of flesh, and the scene is once again maritime. The poem centres on marriage, and has an epithalamion at its core. Despite the problematic nature of the Arthurian myth of the subtitle, the poem is celebratory, albeit with a recognition of the narcotic element that lies behind this love in the closing lines:

Unalterable inward flame, that sings
like the last breath of strings,
light our tired ships to harbour, burning through
darkness at last: where, blown by opiate wings,
the cold lace of the harbour hushes you.

“Case Studies” is a major poem, and an important strand in the English tradition of the seasonal poem. It also marks the high tide of Tiller’s work. The book contains a number of fine poems, particularly a dazzling “Prothalamion” redolent with light and sensuality that stands much closer to the “underground” poets of the 1960s than it does to the Movement, but Notes for a Myth is a deeply uneven collection on the whole. His next, and final book, That Singling Mesh is a conscious declaration of farewell to poetry, and has the air of motions being gone through, a collection of the remaining unpublished poems that Tiller wished to be preserved. There are some fine lines, but the book lacks cohesion.

Nevertheless, this Collected Poems is an important, necessary book. It serves as an act of recovery on at least two levels. Primarily, it brings back into print the work of a shamefully neglected poet from an equally neglected period of English verse. Tiller may be a minor poet, but he is a minor poet unlike any other, a writer who found his own unique manner in which to explore some of the timeless questions that have always occupied poets, and people, at all times and everywhere. What is the appropriate balance between the inner and outer worlds, the private and the communal? How should we love in a world that seems bent on destroying us? How can we face death? The interest of his work is not in the answers he offers, but in the way the questions are asked.

At the same time, the book is part of the ongoing recovery of the full story of twentieth century English poetry, a story that we can now begin to see is much richer and more complex than might be thought. Tiller, Gascoyne, Thomas, Graham, Raine, Nicholson, Roberts and others represent a link between the High Modernism of Pound and Eliot and the neo-modernism of the 60s and 70s, as well as being very fine poets in their own rights. Todd Swift and his Eyewear press are to be congratulated for producing this attractive and sensitively edited volume; it’s a book that anyone with an interest in modern poetry in English will want to read.

1/2/2017

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, and critic. He was born in Dublin in 1954. He spent some years in Spain and the UK and currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively. His other writings on Coffey can be found in Other Edens and on his Elliptical Movements blog. 

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