Tuesday 3 July 2007

Carbon Atom

Alexander Hutchison

‘He that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.’
Dr Johnson, Preface, The Plays of William Shakespeare

‘We will few of us live on by our words,’ said the poet under review. Of such rare survivors, the poet, Alexander Hutchison, is one, some thirty years after his Deep-Tap Tree, some forty after his prize from the American Academy of Poets. Six books on, Hutchison still stands with the best lyric poets of any age a Ulysses at home in jest or in earnest with all comers, an Orpheus to the ear, an Hippocrates to the soul, a Midas among greats living and dead. Carbon Atom is a many-sided wonder by a major poet.

Rarer than major poets is any one book crowding in its pages so many causes for life and for afterlife: in forty-nine poems, most of them unpublished before, Hutchison wields total mastery over English (and Scots) and shows imaginative and moving use of it (of them), invention within a gamut of genres and subjects, emotional variety and depth, and unforgettable, inexhaustible words, phrases, images, stanzas, passages, and poems instant in their force and lasting in their significance. It is beyond facility. It is huge, diverse, and permanent achievement in form and substance. Engrossed in historical vision, amused at the wit of an epigram or dramatic monologue, steadied by the moral authority of a satire or stung by a flyting, moved with the pathos of a letter for a dead friend or love for a living one, we witness an abundance of gifts put into poetry and a mind at work and at play which we do not wish to leave and which will not leave us.

With ‘triple-sight’ like Keats’s Homer and fellow feeling like Virgil’s own, Hutchison sees us coming and could not brook parting. ‘We never court seclusion’ are words—spoken by those unseen elements of being in the poem which gives its name to the book— that suggest ‘the most comprehensive soul,’ as Dryden divined in Shakespeare, of the poet himself. ‘Incantation,’ in its four-line close, conveys as much love as the end of The Prelude in meditating

A salve to bind us
A salve to strengthen heart and happiness:

and then at once in issuing, prayer-like, a most affectionate desire for all of our fragmented selves and atomised societies:

may it lie in the star-blanket there to spread over us
may it lie in the first light at the waking of day.

The personification of dawn is a masterstroke. Let four lines illustrate hundreds: Hutchison’s control of line, syntax, rhythm, and verse is, besides flawless, always expressive, no matter the scale, Florentine bronze in the reign of the Medici, Roman marble under Sixtus and Julius II.

Docti poetae, the greatest of the Renaissance poets, and Wordsworth after them, were plural poets, to adopt a term Jean Starobinksi used of Ronsard, never content with a single genre, style, or voice, but engaging and convincing us by their variety, poem by poem. This is the tradition of poetry Hutchison has made his own. To editors, critics, and poets who have read him early and late—to Richard Ellmann, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tom Hubbard, Peter France, and August Kleinzahler—it is, in turn, already his legacy. Mutatis mutandis, taking Baudelaire’s ‘Au fond de I’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!’ as a motto for the novelty and perfection dear to lyric poets since the mid-nineteenth century we come close to expressing the heady spirit of experiment and craft abroad since Deep-Tap Tree. With Hutchison long embarked into creation, never has the poetry invited more discovery or delight.

However, granting the problem of assent in a big, various, and changing world, I despise the laxity and the obscurity to which Hutchison has been subjected; the latter trails behind the former and both attend inertia. Not two years ago, Andrew Duncan classed Hutchison, without comment, among those some two-dozen poets writing ‘Formally radical poetry created away from the South-East,’ whatever that means. Not two months ago, Rupert Loydell could ask, without trying an answer, ‘Who is Alexander Hutchison?’ An idle method betrays a crass outlook.

Above the fray and no time-server, Hutchison has led a quiet life of many journeys. A learned and multi-lingual Scot with a PhD in English from Northwestern University in Illinois, while teaching university mostly in the Pacific Northwest he took Canadian citizenship in the 1970s before returning to Scotland in the 1980s. But the scope and conscience only mount across decades, borders, and nations. Literatures and languages form a personal culture wed to personal integrity. For lovers of poetry, Hutchison holds a compass rose.

I offer as an example of plurality an idea of the language (or languages) Hutchison is master of in Carbon Atom by quoting it (or them) briefly. I see arrayed before me riches found seldom, if ever, today in English poetry in the UK or US. I could begin anywhere. It is hard to find a principle of selection native to the poems, but let me try to have, in a state of exquisite agony, the poet’s words, chosen for nothing more and nothing less than their impression on me, now speak for themselves:

where it’s grind me to powders, and cankering
creeds—with never a blink of primrose banks
never a hint of beech woods building,

Let like kiss like
Let bright affinity walk
in anklets of amber, in fillets
of silver (‘An Ounce of Wit to a Pound of Clergy’).

Jimp she was:
neat as a needle;
sprightly, lively
slender as grass. (‘Jimp’).

Passengers may change for Lucrece, Posy, Quillet,
Yammer, Darkness, Greater Dark.
Also for Soth, Sarlic, Hope, Love, Treacle.
Also for Radisson, Palgrave, Salient, Fly-boy.
They may also change for Christabel and Falssemblant,
with a further connection for Daphnis and Chloe’ (‘Announcement’).

Hume passes
into the absolute,
brace-girdled, without concern (‘Annals of Enlightenment’).

In quoting from

‘An Ounce,’ I mean to show two things: 1. how Hutchison’s love of sound—the energy of the alliteration of d and hard c which changes to alliteration of b and d—constantly satisfies the ear with music (long fled in Seamus Heaney) easier to notice than to describe, but as often pleases the imagination, such as with the finality of vision of ‘beech woods building,’ a sudden locus amoenus perhaps alluding to the opening of Virgil’s Eclogues, 1, 1, yet in more ways than one sufficient of itself. And 2. that Hutchison is both a poet of love (‘Incantation’) and, even in the midst of satire, a love poet.

‘Jimp’ (all of it), I mean to show that, like Hugh MacDiarmid, Hutchison can take even the ignoramus to the word he does not know and make him feel his way into it. This exhausts nothing like the range of what Hutchison makes with this native tongue. More should come from a critic as bilingual as Hutchison, whose languages also include Latin, French, and Italian. Doctus poeta, Hutchison also alludes to, by borrowing from, Alan Ramsay ‘Right weel red up, an’ jimp she was’ (Poems [S.T.S.] 1, 76.): see A Dictionary of the Scots Language, s. v. (A similar imitation Hutchison acknowledges in a footnote to ‘Grass of Levity.’)

‘Announcement,’ I mean to show the characteristic fecundity and felicity of words, here served up in discordia concors, laughter, and serious mirth.

‘Annals of Enlightenment,’ I mean to show how cool and detached the stance can be, intellectualised but intellectually and emotionally potent.

Mastering language is to express what one will and, no doubt, more than that, which does not mean that the poet says just anything, which would be saying nothing, but rather that he enters into the mystery of existence in eloquence. Poetry is linguistic, as music is sonic, but it is not all language (or else Milosz, translated into English from Polish, would lay no claim on us to be who he is: Milosz) any more than music is all sound.

Yet, language is the man. ‘Whoever has thought strongly and felt strongly has innovated in his language,’ for Leo Spitzer. This would explain Shakespeare’s influence on English, and on English poets, assuming, as many have, that Shakespeare himself—behind the poetry and plays—had both strong thought and strong feeling. The Renaissance and Shakespeare enjoyed each other: Shakespeare seized opportunity of it as an era of huge plastic change in English; the Renaissance had advantage of him as the supreme innovator in the language.

Modernity differs. If the present and the previous century favoured a release from the language of poetry as essentially and necessarily beautiful, it also mined a narrow vein of it, animated by what began as a testament of a very young poet and continued as a principle for poets of all ages—‘language really used by men’—an idea destined to alter with the generations, with reality. Gradually, the possibilities contract and level. Whence the flatness (or plainness) of phrase which, ultimately justified by Yvor Winters with an ill-informed appeal to the example of Elizabethans from Wyatt to Jonson, poets like Williams, Plath, and (most recently) Simic quixotically applied as a central ambition. In the nineteenth century, it was Joubert who, with just three words, introduced the notion of a ‘poesie d’idees,’ which Verlaine (‘De la musique avant toute chose;’) and Mallarmé (‘Ce n’est pas avec des idées qu’on fait des vers, c’est avec des mots’) soon enough exploded. Valery’s ‘Cimetiere marin’ in its dazzling display of music and movement—to finish with this French line of descent from Baudelaire to the High Moderns and their postmodern offspring—could well have been a force to shape Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets,’ by moments a grand poem on poetry and recognisably Renaissance (not Neo-Classical, not Romantic) in its love for copiousness and decorum:

(where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the other,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)

Hutchison, as sonorous as Baudelaire or Eliot, cultivates a humane but fearless art with each word—high, middle, low, Germanic, Latinate, Italian, French, Scots—in concert with every other word, the thought, feeling, and expression one, strong, and, therefore, innovatory. The language of great poets, integral to and immediate in our experience of their poetry, creates interest, value, autonomy. To it we turn like heliotropes to the sun. In language alone, Hutchison embodies such properties and purposes as need a book to explore.

‘The future of poetry is immense.’ Could Matthew Arnold in late 1880—could any of the dead critics—see his future in our present, the problem would appear today to be not poetry but culture, angry culture at war with itself from assumption to execution, its members ever more prone to violent opinion and to physical violence, anxious and greedy culture premised on doubt and narcissism, lazy culture easy on itself and soft on other cultures, whose languages it does not know and whose lands it does not visit, savvy culture profiting from the falsehood that the getting-and-spending individual asks little or nothing from art beyond distraction. Mere sub-cultures result.

We need better to be better. Coleridge, clarifying the word culture as signifying those `qualities and faculties which characterise our humanity,’ was not the first to make explicit what had been implicit in the West since Homer: the circle of knowledge the Greeks called encyclopedia—Keats’s ‘realms of gold’—exists to complete and ennoble us.

Only an immense poet survives present and future. So Alexander Hutchison. Approached with the modesty, admiration, and love owed makers (or makars), plurality in all of these nearly fifty poems is to be experienced. From the infinitely small to the infinitely great, from the lowly fricative to the sacred canopy, Carbon Atom arrests and rewards us with the very reality we, by nature, consist of, wonder at, and reflect upon. With Scales Dog, collected poems, due this autumn from Salt Publishing in Cambridge, Hutchison’s poetry should be our culture: read it and read it again from corona to core to grow, more complete and nobler than we were, in its light.


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See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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