There’s a scene in the documentary film Birmingham’s What I Think With (1991), directed by the Northumbrian poet Tom Pickard, in which Roy Fisher happens upon the house in working-class Birmingham where he was born in 1930 and lived until he was 23. The house has a fresh, new door, and the poet, a large white-haired gent in a parka, gives it a knock. A young Sikh boy answers. Fisher introduces himself and inquires whether he might have the old door, which he had noticed in the rubbish. His courteousness wins the boy over, and later we see the two studying a sandstone crag in a nearby wood; Fisher takes out a penknife and digs in, showing the boy how easily sandstone crumbles. Upon that foundation, the poet points out, Birmingham was built.
Fisher, now 81 and still a perennial outsider in British poetry, has just had his first Selected Poems published in the United States. It’s long overdue, considering that as an accomplished poet and jazz pianist, Fisher has owed much to our free verse and free jazz. But his reputation rests largely on his scrabbling penknives into British bedrock, beginning with his first book, City (1961), and continuing through works like The Dow Low Drop (1996), which, as Fisher explains, takes its title from “the steep but backless hill that rises behind my house in an upland valley near the headwaters of the Derbyshire Dove. It is part of a line several miles long, formed from limestone of exceptional purity and until recently topped for some three thousand years by many grave mounds of Bronze Age dignitaries, set so as to be clearly visible from their farmlands to either side.”
The bedrock of Fisher’s land- and cityscapes is his preoccupation with time, and the struggle to grasp its scale. Tracing the imprint of time on sandstone and soil, or streets and buildings, is a challenge to trifling human memory. But whenever our forgetfulness falters, morbidity creeps in. Consider “The Memorial Fountain,” which starts with a faithful description of what is seen and then grapples with the mood of asceticism memorials impose on public space:
The fountain plays
through summer dusk in gaunt shadows,
against a late clear sky,
water in the basin
where the column falls
rapid and wild,
in cross-waves, in back-waves,
the light glinting and blue,
as in a wind
though there is none….
people on the public seats
embedded in it, darkening
intelligences of what’s visible;
private, given over, all of them—
As for the fountain:
nothing in the
beyond what shows
It’s like this often—
I don’t exaggerate.
In its setting and prosody, “The Memorial Fountain” calls to mind three of Fisher’s American predecessors: William Carlos Williams and the descriptions of the city in Paterson; Charles Olson and his “open field” poems about Gloucester; and George Oppen and the spare phrasal fragments with which he pieced together the poems in Of Being Numerous. Fisher soaked up the influence of these poets at a time when they were either unknown or dismissed in Britain. As for Fisher’s remove from the literary culture of his time, it has something to do with his geographical distance from the London literary scene. But it is also preserved by his poems, with their reticence and deliberate drabness, like the camouflage of a fledgling avoiding predators. (The young Fisher stopped writing for a period when he caught wind of a rumor that strangers were reading his poems.) The avuncular Fisher of Pickard’s documentary is different from the poet one encounters on the page—gimlet-eyed, impersonal, critical. “The Memorial Fountain” ends:
And the scene?
a thirty-five-year-old man,
by temper, realist,
watching a fountain
and the figures round it
in garish twilight,
to distinguish an event
from an opinion;
intent and comfortable—
A deflated posture distinguishes the “thirty-five-year-old man”; Fisher indents and gives a parenthetical air to the description of his life’s work. After all, he does not “exaggerate.” One might doubt the modesty of a man who is, after all, an artist, but one cannot question the severity of the style—there is no dissembling in it.
“The Memorial Fountain” was written in 1966, continuing the important work of City, which contains one of Fisher’s earliest and best-known poems, “The Entertainment of War.” In that ironic title lies a tangle of feelings particular to Fisher and the postwar provincial England the poem documents. The poem recalls how an aunt, uncle and two cousins Fisher barely knew perished in the Birmingham Blitz (between August 1940 and April 1943, some 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Britain’s second-largest city). The 10-year-old Fisher can’t pretend to mourn them; he registers, instead, his “classmates’ half-shocked envy” at the attention cast upon him by his kin’s misfortune, and the drawings of naked blondes in the notebook he inherits from a slightly older cousin (along with his pencils).
The British critic Angela Leighton has called “The Entertainment of War” “one of the coldest elegies ever composed,” but it seems so only because the poet refuses to embellish the feelings of his 10-year-old persona, acknowledging instead something no adult could admit: “And the end of the whole household meant that no grief was seen;/Never have people seemed so absent from their own deaths.” That’s not entirely true:
But my grandfather went home from the mortuary
And for five years tried to share the noises in his skull,
Then he walked out and lay under a furze-bush to die.
The grief wasn’t actually absent, only protracted. Fisher’s lack of immediate grief for his kin will transmogrify into a lifelong concern with memory and elegy, and with the less transparent feelings that become emergent only with reflection:
This bloody episode of four whom I could understand better dead
Gave me something I needed to keep a long story moving;
I had no pain of it; can find no scar even now.
But Fisher’s poems belie the claim that he can “find no scar even now.” The “bloody episode” bequeathed to him not only the impulse to elegize but the imperative to criticize what he calls “the fiction”:
But had my belief in the fiction not been thus buoyed up
I might, in the sigh and strike of the next night’s bombs
Have realized a little what they meant, and for the first time been afraid.
What Fisher means by “fiction” is that naïve “willing suspension of disbelief” that was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s formula for poetic faith. It is this fiction that persuades us that we will never be the victim; the adult Fisher atones for the fiction to which his 10-year-old self clung. This atonement takes two forms: skepticism toward personal emotion and austerity of style. Because he “had heard the bombs/Sing and then burst themselves” over Birmingham, this poet will not mimic them or call attention to himself with verbal fireworks. His prosody shuns the musical effects of meter and rhyme that his near-contemporary and fellow realist of provincial England Philip Larkin employed with a vengeance.
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.