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He tells you, in the sombrest notes,
If poets want to get their oats,
The first step is to slit their throats.
The way to divide
The sheep of poetry from the goats
When Stephanie saw me crack the spine on this collection of poetry, she queried whether any poem could be cited as definitively great. As verse (free or otherwise) is the product of the inner-world of the poet it is both subjective in its construction and reception.
When challenged the first poem that sprang to mind was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
But is my appreciation of that poem due to its inherent quality, or because I have fond memories of my teacher Dennis Craven reciting those lines in 1998? Nostalgia creeps in, the associative quality of poetry merges with the personality of the reader and we end up with a poem having, in effect, reconstituted it to have a more personal meaning.
James Fenton’s career as a foreign correspondent and political journalist for a number of British newspapers informs his writing. In this collection he recounts in verse experiences he had in post-war Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and then his return to England, his perspective on his home country forever altered by what he witnessed.
Children in Exile describes the slow release of young emigrants who have escaped Pol Pot’s regime from the memories and nightmares of the country they left behind. One startling image is of a child who dreams of “Jesus with a gun”, an image of a newfound protector that he has learned of from his American rescuers informed by his understanding of what is required to save a life. These children’s education is of a bloodier sort than their Western counterparts: “Students of calamity, graduates of famine […] They have learnt much. There is much more to learn. Each heart bears a diploma like a scar”.
Fenton is writing journalism through verse, transforming coldly objective prose into more emotional material, where he has free reign to give vent to righteous anger. In a Notebook uses a comparison between traditional poetry, with its dropped hints and suggestive language, italicised to contrast it with the opposing page which repeats the content, but revisits the ephemeral beauty described with harsh reality:
And I’m afraid, reading this passage now,
That everything I knew has been destroyed
In a Notebook provides a valuable insight into Fenton’s project. A self-conscious note is present, highlighting the concern as to whether poetry is possible in relation to such atrocities. I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s famous quote “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Fenton’s perspective on England itself has been heavily influenced by what he has witnessed. My opening quote is taken from Letter to John Fuller, challenging a rival poet to exchange the pretence of a tortured poet for real torture and suffering. The primacy of a published poet’s anguished musings loses some of its power when contrasted with the suffering of starving children, victims of oppression, or even the homeless who eke out their existence on the streets of Western cities. Our assumption in the benevolence of the Almighty is also rejected, as to Fenton’s mind there is not a lot of evidence to support it:
I didn’t exist at Creation,
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
And I won’t be around for Salvation
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
Throughout this collection Fenton supplies some wonderful combinations of language. I was particularly struck by the phrase “the eloquence of young cemeteries”. To answer Stephanie’s challenge though, is it great poetry? I am not sure.
I think it is very good writing, but for me poetry is consistent in its meaning. The associations, wordplay and poetical structure are all meant to convey a continuous thematic thread from beginning to conclusion. With many of the poems here I felt as if meaning surfaced and then dived beneath the musings on war and death, like an elusive submarine plumbing treacherous waters. The uncertainty as to whether the poetical format suits these missives leaves the overall project unsteady at times, fitfully brilliant with occasional dips into confusion.
One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.
Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.
The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.
We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.
Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.
The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.
So why do I find this such a trite book?
In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.
This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.
This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.