Hard Against Time: On Roy Fisher
Geoffrey Hill, another poet of the Midlands, has written insightfully about atonement—both as a motive for writing (“everyone writes from impure motives…. If that is so, let us postulate yet another impure motive, remorse”) and as an end (“the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement”). He reminds us of what T.S. Eliot said of atonement: “when the words are finally arranged in the right way,” the poet “may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable.”
Interesting word, “annihilation.” The annihilation of the little family in its garden bomb shelter is an obscenity; the annihilation of the ego in art is an instrument of atonement, and sublime (“indescribable”). Lyric poetry is the art in which it is most difficult to annihilate the ego. If there is an art in which it is less difficult, it might be music. If the point of music is to create beauty not with words but with notes, which don’t represent subjective experience and whose relationships are much more structured than those of words; and if songs are less individuated works than pieces that give themselves to a collective, becoming “standards”; and if jazz musicians must more or less subjugate themselves to the dynamics of the band (except when permitted a solo); then Fisher the pianist might teach Fisher the poet a thing or two about the medium in which mastery transmutes ego into atonement. Yet Fisher’s poems about jazz are thick with cockiness and violence. Take his justly renowned “The Thing About Joe Sullivan”:
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes […]
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:
Why so violent? Why the hostility toward swing? “Snakecharming,” masturbatory poems aim only to seduce. But seduction is fictive; so is consolation. Sullivan is thus Fisher’s stand-in; his violent piano-playing takes the place of Fisher’s violent lyricizing in the face of time’s violence:
And that thing is his mood:
a feeling violent and ordinary
that runs in among standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
The fingers that “find corners everywhere” are not unlike the bombs that “sang” down and found corners in Birmingham, to deadly effect. In Fisher’s poems violence is embedded in the drabness: “The sun hacks at the slaughterhouse campanile”; “stretches of silver/gashed out of tea green shadows”; “Style? I couldn’t begin./That marriage (like a supple glove/that won’t suffer me to breathe)/to the language of my time and classes.” Art for Fisher really does rehearse our “ordinary” violent tendencies (the word “ordinary” is repeated twice in “The Thing About Joe Sullivan”), and expiate them.
It isn’t just one dead family, or the dead from one war, for whom Fisher seeks atonement: his “time and classes” are a cause for expiation as well. In “One World” he thinks about some Birmingham students he has taught: “When I last saw them they were eleven,/born on a council estate/halfway to the next town,/sold into the lowest stream/at five or so: you can recognize/a century of Brummagem eugenics/in a child.” He remembers their appalling lives, and some of the deaths he has heard of, and then he ticks off some of their names. The poem ends: “if they’re offended, they can tell me about it./It would be good to know/we all look at the same magazines.” This gibe recalls a remark of William Wordsworth’s in a letter to a friend in 1802, a time when reviewers objected to Lyrical Ballads for its focus on the life and language of the rural poor: “People in our rank in life are perpetually falling into one sad mistake, namely, that of supposing that human nature and the persons they associate with are one and the same.” Those literati who do look at all the same magazines, whose parents looked at all the same magazines and whose students look at all the same magazines should take note. As for Fisher’s students, the best he could do for them, he tells us, was to teach them “pacification and how to play.” When his realism takes in social relations—which are always implicit in his descriptions of bleak industrial cityscapes, but not always explicit—irony reaches a pitch. “It would be good to know/we all look at the same magazines” isn’t just sardonic. It is angry. The idea of people peacefully sharing “one world,” or at-one-ment, is an impossible dream.
The foreword to Selected Poems has been furnished by the American poet August Kleinzahler, an ardent, colorful, worldly writer who is seemingly Fisher’s opposite. But both poets have grounded their work in the prosodies of midcentury American Modernism, just as both have cast an observant eye on city and landscape. Kleinzahler’s sympathy for Fisher’s work doesn’t blunt his honesty: “Roy Fisher has never aspired to a readership…. It is a poetry almost entirely without charm.” But Kleinzahler also advocates on behalf of Fisher’s best poems, and he implicitly makes a case for Fisher as a genuine experimental poet, one who sees his work as an investigation, who maintains an empirical method and for whom scruples of method are more important than the judgment of contemporaries and the fickle dynamics of taste. (There are interesting biographical tidbits in Kleinzahler’s foreword as well: the fact that Fisher was an accomplished child painter, for instance, and that he has “near photographic recall.”)
Because Fisher wrote many more long poems than he did short, anthology-friendly ones like “The Thing About Joe Sullivan,” it makes little sense that Kleinzahler and the publisher have excerpted long works like “The Ship’s Orchestra” and “A Furnace” (which Kleinzahler calls Fisher’s “masterwork”). The few fragments of “A Furnace” printed here do not differ much from the shorter lyrics surrounding it and contribute to the sense of Fisher being a poet given to bursts of close attention to objects and landscapes rather than to experiments with narratives and structures in longer forms. There are also many rhetorical poems that show Fisher at his most sour. “At the Grave of Asa Benveniste” takes a swipe at Sylvia Plath in an elegy for an obscure friend who was bitter enough to put on his tombstone Foolish Enough to Have Been a Poet. “Freelance” sneers, “So glad I’m not really/hired to take a class in Creative Writing/at a bus stop in Barcelona.” There’s more of this sort of piffle in the British edition of Fisher’s collected poems, but at least there it looks like off-the-cuff occasional verse—grumbles addressed to friends—set amid ambitious long poems; in this Selected Poems, it claims the status of representative work.
That is an unfortunate but minor matter, and it needn’t distract us from appreciating the reward of reading an unsettling poet who “has never aspired to a readership”—to be reminded of the long view. The poet who has revisited and revised his works so often over the years is the same poet who nicked at Birmingham sandstone with his penknife, for whom feelings and motives leave unsentimental formations that come into focus only over the arc of a life. Fisher writes about what’s sorely missing, or is often dodged, in our virtual world of speed and simultaneity—the full weight of time.