Review of American Essays: Making it New, by Charles Tomlinson
American Essays: Making it New, by Charles Tomlinson. Carcanet Press, 2001, 200 pgs. $12.95
“American poetry is a very easy subject to discuss for the simple reason that it does not exist.” Thus begins the introductory essay to Charles Tomlinson’s American Essays: Making It New, an assortment of Tomlinson’s essays and reviews on such mid-century American modernists as Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and George Oppen. In this collection, Tomlinson explores the theme that has been central to his distinguished career as poet, critic, and long-time British supporter of American poetics: what is the place of “national” literature?
Tomlinson’s introductory phrase, which he attributes to Book Three of William Carlos Williams’s Patterson, has particular resonance in this regard. Tomlinson is quick to point out that Williams certainly intended the statement as an inauguration of a poetics that would “have to cope with the sell-out to Europe, as he saw it, and re-root and replenish itself on the often thin soil of American locality.” In this sense, American poetry “does not exist” without a particularizing recourse to the local.
Of course, such a statement carries other implications. Part of its attraction for Tomlinson is the implied repudiation of an intrinsic and unqualified national identity. Tomlinson suggests throughout these essays that he found his “own voice,” and, indeed, a patently British voice, “by learning from four Americans–Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams.” For Tomlinson, neither American nor British poetry exist in isolation, but rather, to again borrow from Tomlinson’s quotation of Williams, only as “an anthology of transit.” The place of national literature is thus, in this case, transatlantic, at once “in place” and “in transit.” As Tomlinson insists throughout his considerable body of poetry, and in the poem “On Water,” in particular, national identity is written “on water” with both “illegible depths” and “lucid passages.”
Tomlinson is certainly not the first to call attention to the irony that national identity, when articulated with clarity and without sentiment, is at once subject to “place,” in terms of particular geographic and ecological locality, and to a transitory “placelessness.” For instance, in his famous and influential book Exiles and Émigrés, Terry Eagleton argues that such exiles as Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence were able “to bring to bear on their range of experience-of America, Europe, Africa, the East-which went beyond the parochial limits and with which England could be fruitfully comprehended.” The key idea here is that the particulars of place are best comprehended with a migratory, exile’s eye. What makes Tomlinson’s new collection especially valuable is his careful and erudite analysis of the poetics and mechanics of such poetry of exile. His collection insists that the transitory and particular places of literature are always registered in the poem’s textures, measures, and formal qualities. These essays provide equally invaluable insight into Tomlinson’s own poetry, which, I would argue, remains one the most important examples of the transitory poetics at the heart of the American modernism from which Tomlinson’s poetry emerges.
American Essays is roughly organized into two sections: essays from his 1981 collection Some Americans: A Personal Record and previously uncollected essays from such journals as The New Review, Parnassus, and The Times Literary Supplement. Some Americans, which Tomlinson wrote after the suggestion by Hugh Kenner, is arguably the seedbed for American Essays. In the foreword to Some Americans, Tomlinson explains that its impetus was “to tell of the way certain American poets…helped an English poet find himself.” He proceeds largely by anecdote: “I wanted also to convey to the reader what some of them were like as people.” Indeed, Tomlinson’s account of his correspondence with Williams is telling, as in Williams’s first letter to Tomlinson, written in 1957: “to meet an Englishman to whom my name is not anathema is almost to be classed to me as an event.” What is significant here is the acknowledgment of the degree to which Williams was, at the time, largely ignored and unread in England, which makes Tomlinson’s interest all the more striking.
However, what is perhaps most significant is the degree to which Williams altogether misunderstands this interest, as evident in his response to Tomlinson’s “Sea Poem:” “[it] is a fine piece that impresses me…for its generosity toward the American idiom and all it implies for me” (20). Tomlinson is quick to point out the fundamental error of this misreading:
If I was being generous at all, it was toward his three-ply measure rather than any specific idiom. My idiom was Queen’s English, deriving of course, in its poetic structure, from an American example. (20)
In other words, Williams fails to understand, at least initially, that Tomlinson’s goal is to replenish “English” poetry and to reclaim a sense of his native “Englishness,” both of which had been, in Tomlinson’s mind, depleted by the then-fashionable English “Movement” poetry of such figures as Philip Larkin: “I felt the whiff of little Englandism in their manifestoes and in some of their verse to by a symptom of that suffocation which has affected so much English art” (19). Before discovering Williams, Tomlinson’s sense, as he puts it “had been one of almost complete poetic isolation,” a sense of exile. Williams provided new poetic measures and structures with which to clarify a sense of Tomlinson’s native English “place” while refreshing its idioms.
In Some Americans, Tomlinson never fully articulates his sense of these new American measures, nor exactly how an English poet might implement them. American Essays supplements Some Americans with precisely this sort of analysis. For instance, in the essay “Williams’s Thousand Freshets,” Tomlinson clarifies Williams’s sense of locality as achieved in the formal qualities of his poetry, a process by which the “jerks and outbursts of speech [are] rendered on to the here and now of the page….Williams’s ‘locality’ begins with somatic awareness, a physiological presence in time and space” (28). Tomlinson cites Williams’s “Spring Strains” as an example of this measure, as embodied in the flight of two birds:
the binding and red-edged sun-blur-
creeping energy, concentrated
counterforce-welds sky, buds, trees,
rivets them in one puckering hold!
As Tomlinson suggests, “the birds exert their own counterforce of speed and lightness, breaking out of the riveted landscape.” This process is achieved through the careful torsion of syntax that at once places extra stress and emphasis on individual words and syllables while constantly skirting incompletion and asymmetry.
This duality has informed much of Tomlinson’s own poetry, as evident in his “Sea Poem:”
like a fault in the atmosphere, each
with its separate whisper, each whisper
a breath of that singleness
that moves together
if it moves at all
and its movement is ceaseless,
and to one end-
a whiter bone.
While unmistakably written in Tomlinson’s “Queen’s English,” the poem employs the same torsions of force and hesitation at work in Williams’s “Spring Strains.” This is achieved, in part, by the use of Williams’s “triple-decker” lineation, or “variable foot,” which Tomlinson describes as the “contentual emphasis” and “contingent motion” of each line. In “Sea Poem,” it is precisely this contingent motion, as evident in the varying line length and syntax, which gives rise to emphasis. The “ceaseless” motion of the sea arrives at the pristine and still-life clarity of the “whiter bone.”
What is at stake in this poem, and in Williams’s poem, is an engagement with place and its geographic landscapes. As Tomlinson argues, it is Williams’s “remembrance of the act of walking through a given terrain which propels some of his best stretches” (28) An active walker, Williams’s suggests, “should be able to change pace, stop, start, turn, step up or down, twist or stoop, easily and quickly, without losing balance or rhythm” (28). Achieving a clarity of place, then, must embrace both the force of particular objects, as well their uncertainties, disruptions, and, as Williams puts it, “questionable crossties.” Questionable “crossties” thus speaks not only to an unlikely international exchange between Williams and Tomlinson, but to the duality at the heart of Williams’s poetics.
This duality is likewise the focus of Tomlinson’s analysis of Marianne Moore, in whose “moral world,” suggests Tomlinson, “spontaneity and order are not at odds” (43). This duality results in a “spiritual poise” not unlike the counterforce at the heart of Williams’s “Spring Strain” and Tomlinson’s “Sea Poem.” For instance, Tomlinson provides an astute reading of Moore’s famous poem “The Steeple-Jack” as a truce between the claims of human architecture and its environs: “the antique / sugar-bowl-shaped summer house of interlacing slats” stands in relation to the “diffident / little newt / with white pin-dots on black horizontal spaced / out bands.” This is, suggests Tomlinson, registered in the formal duality of the rigidly syllabic lines, of which Moore is so famous, combined with “their open-endedness, the sense of rippling on” (45). The effect is that of a lucid but wayward eye, or the sort of sauntering called for by Williams.
Throughout his career, Tomlinson has used these models as a way of reclaiming and reviving a “riveted” English landscape, a landscape he sees diminished by the aggressive claims of industrialism and claustrophobia. In “The Poet as Painter,” Tomlinson describes his native Stoke-on-Trent in the British West Midlands as a “region of smoke and blackened houses, of slag-heaps, cinder-paths, pitheads, and steelworks.” In his poem “The Marl Pits,” Tomlinson, after his long engagement with American poetics, turns his attention to his native region, from which he has long been exiled:
. . . Digging
The marl, they dug a second nature
And water, seeping up to fill their pits,
Sheeted them to lakes that wink and shine
Between tips and steeples, streets and waste
In slow reclaimings, shimmers, balancings,
As if kindling Eden rescinded its own loss
And words and water came of the same source.
Here, the seemingly riveted “tips and steeples, streets and waste” are poised against the watery “shimmers.” The landscape is conditioned by human industry and architecture, yet subject to the wayward play of natural processes. The poet’s task, in this regard, is to find measure appropriate to the this dynamic, a measure devoid of an overbearing sentimentality or naive parochialism. This is a moral aesthetic similar, as Tomlinson articulates it, to Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack,” in which order is measured by spontaneity. Thus, reclaiming a ravished national landscape, such as Tomlinson’s Midlands, as well as articulating its sense of “place,” requires the terms of exile-a duality of precise focus achieved only through an awareness contingent variation. Tomlinson’s American Essays is an invaluable insight as to how this might be accomplished.
Jonathan Minton has poems appearing in Milk, Can We Have Our Ball Back?, Phoebe, Drunken Boat, and Seems. He is the editor of Word For/ Word, an electronic poetry journal <www.wordforword.info>. He lives and teaches in Albany, NY.