Michael Tolkien

New Collected Poems (Fyfield Books) (Carcanet)

(Publ in Ambit 193, June 2008)


  With discerning scholarship Claire Harman has edited, selected and annotated both the collected and uncollected work (1925-1980) of an overlooked lyrical and satirical voice. Her introduction, like her award-winning 1990 biography, reveals the life and diverse literary output of Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose prose fiction and verse attracted equal critical interest until she closed her publicised career as a poet after the notorious Whether a Dove or a Seagull (1934) This intertwining of verse (without titles or authorial names) by herself and her lover and fellow poet, Valentine Ackland, was blacklisted less for its movingly expressed (and deftly ignored) lesbian eroticism, than for questioning the mindset that ‘judges the poem by the poet rather than the poet by the poem’.  A cue for us now, though we’d need to assess Warner’s novels, short stories, translations and biographical writing to test the blurb-quoted claim: ‘second only to Virginia Woolf among women writers of our century’.

   I began by suspecting the aficionados’ reinstatement of a writer whose verse was her cherished medium, yet, after one débâcle decided to write primarily for herself.  In fact, from her earliest collections, which excel in a kind of sardonic rural and suburban pastoralism, through to her bundled-up, often unsorted final manuscripts, Warner is an assured versifier, not limited to but most adept at intense, terse, tightly rhymed forms. Even where she’s too ingenious her expanding array of techniques enhances her tone and remarkably eclectic subject matter. She leaves few stones unturned. But quirky features persist: archaisms and redundant ‘poetic’ diction, obscure vocabulary dredged up for rhymes, abstract personifications and displaced syntax. In contrast to many well-known contemporary poets echoed in theme and style she is apt either to fail or refuse to marry colloquial energy with formal restraints.

   Some of her best work concerns the oppressed and the outsider with implicit reference to agricultural recession and the disruptive impact of war. Where rhetoric is resisted, there are hard-hitting poems from her experience as a Red Cross volunteer and communist sympathiser in the Spanish civil war, and from her civilian observations of war-torn Britain. In Benicasim  she captures the contradiction of a colourful, fruitful landscape and war’s human toll : ‘…we have come/into a bright-painted landscape of Acheron./For along the strand/in bleached cotton pyjamas, on rope-soled tread,/ wander the risen-from-the-dead,/ the wounded, the maimed, the halt./Or they lay bare their hazarded flesh to the salt/air, the recaptured sun,/or bathe in the tideless sea, or sit fingering the sand.’  Valentine and Mr Cox features a graceless working man looking over a bridge to where ‘Flickered the dragonfly image of the high-in-air/ Bombing plane rehearsing murder overhead,/And the trout poised in the swaying water weed.’ Asked how he would react if he heard the war had ended, ‘With bloodshot eyes and sunken for lack of sleep/ He looked soberly at her and with a deep/Grieving breath sighed out his mind. I would weep.

    The love poems evoke the widest range of emotions, and a more expansive, experimental style in response to Ackland’s freer forms. Where it is not overdone, Warner’s brand of the  sprung-rhythmic style of Hopkins and Dylan Thomas adds to the sense of conflicting rapture and confusion. I admire her yoking together of diverse objects and areas of experience into dense metaphors; but I return to the more focused poems like this wistful description of her lover on a merry-go-round: ‘…As, poised on the rise and fall of your varnished grey,/A silence swung on the steam organ’s bray,/A secret brandished round to beholders, /And prize, for term of two-pennyworth left to us,/Of my following eyes, and prey,/You float within touch of hand and remote as child at play;/For love of your long legs and your proud shoulders/And the one lappet of hair hanging astray/I would give you Alexander’s Bucephalas,/Though you should mount and ride away…’

   This commentary is too cursory for a book that amounts to a re-exploration of some crucial trends and developments of 20th century verse. Readers may feel excluded at times, but Warner will win their respect and admiration.


Sylvia Townsend - Warner