Sunday, May 13, 2012

Discovering Charles Tomlinson

Reading is all about connections. Only last week I was reading Rilke, inspired to return to him by David Cook's  translations, and now I'm reading Charles Tomlinson - and finding so many points of contact. And this even before I found pieces in his Collected Poems drawing directly on Rilke, as well as a poem on the Chateau de Muzot, where Rilke spent the past years of his life and wrote his best work.

I'd heard the name before, but I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I attended a tribute to Tomlinson as part of the recent Cheltenham Poetry Festival. In the hall of Cheltenham College, a modest audience had turned out to hear a line-up of some of Britain's best poets (including David Morley and Elaine Feinstein) express their admiration for and gratitude to Tomlinson, who was present, but now sadly unable to perform his work himself. It was a disquieting experience to witness that, in some ways: it felt like those taking part knew something important that I didn't; something on the point of being lost, but which (I felt perhaps rather unjustly) the audience seemed indifferent to.

Well, it was something important. The more of Tomlinson's poetry I heard that afternoon, the more I knew that this was a poet I needed to read. What's more, I realised that this is another part of our heritage of 20th Century British poetry which remains invisible, little noticed even within the poetry 'scene'.
Charles Tomlinson

I'd hesitate after only a few days' reading to draw conclusions about Tomlinson's work. What I find sympathetic about him is his exactness, his attention to seeing and to the relationship between human beings and the world which that seeing opens up. I can see why this approach might be interpreted as detachment, but Tomlinson answers this well himself in an interview with David Morley from The North in 1991: 'The [...] idea [of my poetry as cold, D.C.] was put into circulation by early reviewers whose own feelings were cold and numb towards the kind of things that interested me - our relation to the non-human world, for example, which surrounds us and has shaped us. But my feelings are born of excitement. I want to tell people.'

A good example of this is 'The Chestnut Avenue: at Alton House' (Collected Poems, Oxford UP, 1985, p. 75). The poem begins from a precise observation of the trees swaying in the wind, how their colours and shapes transform the observer's perspective on the house beyond, reducing it to form and light:

Beneath their flames, cities of candelabra
     Gathering-in a more than civic dark
Sway between green and gloom,
     Prepare a way of hushed submergence
Where the eye descries no human house,
     But a green trajectory in whose depths
Glimmers a barrier of stone. [...]

The observer then calls to mind the 'The patient geometry that planted them', contrasting the human imposition of order with the shapes and movement which the wind and the trees make together. A third element is then introduced. It is not only the relationship between human beings and nature made visible in the landscape which matters here, but also the effect of the resulting image on the mind. The trees, though without volition, move human thought: 'Mindless / they lead the minds its ways, / deny the imposition of frontiers'. Ironically, then, the very order humans create turns against their attempts to fix the world with their ideas.

Described in phenomenological terms, this point, i.e. that the tension between order and chaos in a landscape creates a visual impression which, in turn, is the starting point for (creative) thought, might not seem that novel. What's great about this writing, though, is that the poem itself allows that same experience to the reader. As the images in the poem unfold, we can take part in that same opening out of thought which the observer in the poems undergoes.

There isn't really a conclusion to this, as I feel I'm very much at the beginning of reading and understanding Tomlinson. Having said that, the connection with Rilke clearly lies in this exploration of the relationship between the world, seeing and thinking.

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