Charles Tomlinson at the crossroads
Charles Tomlinson, photographed by Norman McBeath
By ALAN JENKINS
Charles Tomlinson, who died last week, was born in 1927, published his “first pamphlet of verse” in 1951 and his first volume in 1955, and spent most of his life teaching English literature at Bristol University. That looks, on the face of it, like the career of an archetypal Movement poet, but Tomlinson’s work tells a rather different story. From that first volume, The Necklace, on, Tomlinson stood at a kind of crossroads, his collections embodying the tension between opposing tendencies in postwar Anglophone poetry: raw and cooked, “art” and “life”, inner and outer, parochial and international – that can still be felt today . . . .
A glance at the title pages of his early books – “Aesthetic”, “Venice”, “Nine Variations in a Chinese Winter Setting”, “Flute Music”, “The Art of Poetry”, “At Delft (Johannes Vermeer)”, “Farewell to Van Gogh” – suggests the very poet Kingsley Amis had in mind when he said “Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or foreign cities or other poems”. Tomlinson grasped that particular nettle in his poem “More Foreign Cities” (“Not forgetting Ko-jen, that / Musical city . . .”). And the preface he wrote for his Collected Poems in 1985 carries an implicit rejection of the claims Al Alvarez had made twenty-five years earlier for “confessional” or “extremist” poets such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in his introduction to The New Poetry, and perhaps also of the claustrophobic personal anguish specialized in by Ian Hamilton and the poets in his influential magazine The Review . “I realized when I wrote [‘Poem’, one of his earliest pieces]”, Tomlinson says, “that I was approaching the sort of thing I wanted to do, where space represented possibility and where self would have to embrace that possibility somewhat self-forgetfully, putting aside the more possessive and violent claims of personality. The embrace was, all the same, a passionate one, it seemed to me . . .”.
This self-denying – or liberating, depending on your point of view – ordinance was prefigured in the exchange between Alvarez and Donald Davie in the first number of The Review in 1962, and the distancing (or dissatisfaction, or distaste) it entails is still a matter of contention, for some. Davie, who had begun his critical career with Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), a manifesto for the Movement in all but name, had tutored Tomlinson at Cambridge, and was one of his earliest critical champions (another was Hugh Kenner, still pre-eminent among explainers of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and other American Modernists). Davie’s focus on an Augustan “purity” and clarity in diction and syntax had, by 1955, when he published Articulate Energy, widened to include the musical aspects of French Symbolist poetry – De la musique avant toute chose. Tomlinson quoted this line of Verlaine’s in “Antecedents”, one of the most interesting among his early poems (and poems of the 1950s), a “Homage and a Valediction” to the shades and the artistic assumptions of the late nineteenth century, from Wagner and Nietzsche to Laforgue and Mallarmé, and their diminished survivals in the twentieth.
Between appearing in New Lines (the anthology edited by the late Robert Conquest which announced the Movement in 1956) and The New Poetry (which attempted to kill it off), however, Davie had experienced a revelation, which went something like this: the condition to which poetry should properly aspire was not that of music, but sculpture; its proper raison d’être was an enhanced attention to “the world bodied over against the eye”. The preferred antecedent was no longer Verlaine but Théophile Gautier, who described himself as “un homme pour qui le monde visible existe”: a man for whom the visible world has an existence. Rather than expressing or recording an inner state, poetry would provide a rigorous exploration of whatever was “out there”.
Pound had played a central part in Davie’s apostasy, as had “Objectivist” followers of William Carlos Williams such as Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. Although the debt most clearly owed by Tomlinson’s own poems, early and late, is to Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, he found sustenance and a sympathetic hearing among these same representatives of a very different American tradition, to whom (like Davie) he later added Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn as valued exemplars. The possibilities of space, whether in Gloucestershire or Somerset, in Tuscany or New Mexico, the perceiving eye’s (as against the “I”’s) relation to it, and that relationship as recorded by other arts and artists, continued to preoccupy Tomlinson in a way that placed him outside the Anglo-American mainstream, whether that was embodied by Lowell or Larkin. He became a standing (or moving) reproach to the insularity of the Movement, and Larkin in particular. Although from 1958 he and his family lived at Brook Cottage, Ozleworth Bottom, Wotton-under-Edge – splendidly, almost caricaturally English address – from there he travelled widely, making long-lasting literary friendships, notably with Octavio Paz, and translating: from the Spanish of Antonio Machado and the Russian of Fyodor Tyutchev (with Henry Gifford), from César Vallejo and Attilio Bertolucci. Out of this aspect of his work came an invaluable Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, and Metamorphoses: Poetry and translation, an absorbing collection of essays.
Notwithstanding, he retained a deep affection for whatever was traditionally English, and local, in architecture, crafts, materials, properties of land and weather; and all these found their way into his poems at different times, albeit their personal importance to him is very indirectly conveyed. Indirectness aside, this aspect of his work makes him sound a Hardyesque kind of poet, but of Hardy in his poems there is barely a trace. His pared-down, free-verse evocations of place are arresting, but there are probably too many of them, and his more expansive, meditative poems can decline into stilted grandiloquence. Some of his best poems are casual-seeming, conversational, about the industrial Midlands where he was brought up, class and society. He enjoyed a high reputation among academic colleagues, but nothing he wrote earned him the wider critical acclaim and popular affection that were Larkin’s as if by right. (The same could be said of his lifelong friend Donald Davie, who blamed the “lowered sights and diminished horizons” that afflicted postwar poets and readers on the long shadow cast by Hardy – on Larkin especially – and devoted the brilliantly contentious Thomas Hardy and British Poetry to measuring it. But did either write anything with the direct appeal and ramifying force of “The Whitsun Weddings” or “The Old Fools” or “Love Songs in Age”? – Not, of course, that “direct appeal” had much appeal for them.)
The last word should be Tomlinson’s, from an interview conducted by Willard Spiegelman for the Paris Review in 1998:
“A dangerously old-fashioned lifestyle? . . . For practically forty years I taught in a leading British university in our fifth largest city. We brought up a family of two girls and, like the rest of contemporary humanity, were busy getting them to school, to music lessons, to friends. We all went to the opera together and, by the time they began at the Royal Academy of Music, they had seen most of the classics. When we could afford it we went to Italy en famille and the world of Renaissance art and architecture awaited us. . . . Brenda and I have travelled all over the world….We’re not in retreat from anything. . . . It’s not North Dakota, you know. Let me just say this: every day here is a quiet celebration of married love.”