The reviewer reviewed … John Forth considers a collection of essays on poets and poetry by Tony Roberts

robertsThe Taste in my Mind: Essays & Reviews
Tony Roberts
Shoestring Press 
ISBN 9781910 323175
284pp    £12.00

How to respond to a collection of reviews that calls itself an autobiography? One could start by saying it can hardly be anything else, times being what they are, but also that it’s more than autobiography anyway when shaped like a book of poems. Chronologically, this one would have begun with Walcott’s Prodigal (2005) and ended with novelists and dramatists awarded the status of poets ten years later; but it is shaped a little differently. The ‘taste’ in the title is one recreated from Matthew Arnold referring to the right mind for working in.

And I should declare an interest, being a Roberts contemporary and accidentally (though there are no accidents) following a similar, if narrower, reading trajectory. Lowell came sometime in the seventies along with Ford Maddox Ford, both then and maybe again for Stoppard’s Parade’s End on TV, finally arriving at the gates of Gilead before Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy was complete. We shared acquaintances: MacNeice, Wilbur, President Lincoln and Hamlet via Kermode, making this a personal hamper for me also as I wallow in introductions to those I didn’t know, or knew less well.

Poetry in the Blood, the book of essays by divers hands edited by Roberts and published a year ago, revealed that Lowell, Bishop and a wider American circle were cornerstones for the young Roberts, and this collection opens with five essays on them. The early reception of ‘Life Studies’ accompanies a confidently condensed look at the poems as if they’ve been lived-in, but it’s the importance of ’91 Revere Street’ that is given centre-stage in forming the voice in poems which (jump) the modernist fence both in terms of matter and metre. Lowell had said, It’s hard to get people into poetry – it’s not a good medium for it, and so went on to enlarge the field by forging a strong link with the prose in his brief memoir.

If this reads like ancient history, it is nevertheless more important now because its significance has been underplayed as a result. Even Roberts almost persuades himself and us that the Freudians, Jarrell and Roethke, are nearly as interesting as the canonical Lowell, especially the former whose work, as with Snodgrass, shines through the essay on him. But it is perhaps the one on Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs that lends a home to the autobiography spat, to considerations of confessional poetry and also to the argument of those, including Lowell and Berryman, who say it’s anything but that.

As well as being crucial in its own right, it is the essay that best displays Roberts’ casual-looking recipes using periodicals and ideas from unexpected sources. An old debate is nicely given an airing, first paraphrased by Berryman: Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me (1972) then by novelist Tim Parks lamenting the prevailing orthodoxy that divorces text from author (2012). It seems Lowell had once tried to settle it: (Henry) is tossed about with a mixture…of pathos and hilarity that would have been impossible if the author had spoken in the first person (1964) but the ambivalence of Berryman himself kept the confessional flame burning. Even Larkin is allowed a go, likening the poetic impulse to: a desire to separate a piece of one’s experience & set it up on its own, an isolated object never to trouble you again, at least not for a bit (Letters to Monica). Roberts’ conclusion that this never seemed to work for Berryman was foreseen by MacNeice in 1938:

However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct….It may be true that any contemporary poet is a mouthpiece of the zeitgeist, but, as mouthpieces alter what you put into them, it is helpful to consider the shape of the mouthpiece itself. (from ‘Modern Poetry’)

In another context, Richard Wilbur’s: Poetry is a conflict with disorder, not a message from one person to another moves the argument on by claiming its place appropriately among some of the most ordered-looking verse on the planet, but the last word is Elizabeth Bishop’s letter predating ‘Dream Songs’ in which she reveals her suspicion that Berryman may outlast them all. All of this is typical of Roberts’ method, where a detailed map of the age is condensed to appear as table-talk. You invite him to dinner and his friends talk easily into the night after everyone else has gone.

The essay on Lowell and Bishop is almost an aperitif with its opening line: Reputations bob like corks, witnessing the recent sinking of Lowell’s beside Bishop’s buoyancy. Political and even fashion-related reasons for this are explored, without in any way chipping at the ascendancy of Bishop, but by demonstrating that there are too many Lowells – and suggesting that as many if not more of them have been extracted from the life rather than the work. It’s quite evident that Roberts is too clever and serious to cash in on the recent imbroglio concerning Derek Walcott, even when he skirts close to the kind of themes in the poems that his detractors dine out on.

Some thirty of the thirty-six essays are on poets British and American, and, although only the excellent appreciation of Snodgrass is labelled ‘an appreciation’, they nearly always adopt that tone. After the bigger beasts there is substantial work on Penn Warren and Kinnell followed by recent essays on James Wright, Richard Hugo, Mott, Hass, Dave Smith, Waters and Goode – constituting an extensive introduction to lesser-known American poets. Among others, the British are represented by Feinstein, Harsent, Boland, Hoffman, Hulse and Oliver Reynolds.

The accent on reviewing as autobiography comes into its own in the final piece on Matthew Arnold, written in 2011. I found myself living every kick of a slightly reticent, if not actually apologetic, account of an obsessive’s list of Arnoldian purchases in pursuit of….what, exactly? Well, we learn a good deal about Arnold and a little about Roberts, but it’s most of all a coming-to-terms with the kind of inclusive and morally responsible criticism we always knew was there but perhaps hadn’t seen so well expressed. It is ‘a taste’ of the way literature is best read in a world not entirely unlike Arnold’s, judging by his 1849 letter to Clough:

..these are damned times – everything is against one – the height to which knowledge has come, the spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities…moral desperadoes like Carlyle, our own selves and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties.

Not bad, coming from one described by Edmund Wilson as having the jaunty air of an English schoolmaster, but only when travelling abroad. Take out the reference to Carlyle and you might be reading Will Self or Charlie Brooker, but it was clear that Arnold’s emphasis on literature as moral compass had surfaced in Roberts’ penultimate essay on the Gilead trilogy, in which Robinson’s view of what art can and should do forms part of a much praised support act for what follows. I was left very much inclined to share in an affection for the great Victorian, and slightly envious of the purchase of an 1867 first edition of his New Poems for forty quid.

So… scholarly without being overly academic then. In tackling four poems about the novelist Ford Maddox Ford (one of them by Ford himself) we’re shown work by Pound, Carlos Williams and Lowell whose versions of him finally eclipse and enhance the artist we think we know from the novels. Anyone needing help with Charles Tomlinson’s poems might well begin here, in a wide-reaching piece taking in a long career of light, shade and aesthetic. In fact a range of approaches underpins ‘appreciation’. In the essay on Walcott’s two recent books The Prodigal & White Egrets, I began to see how his frequent inaccessibility has come about, partly through a contrast of his methods with Lowell’s. My grasp of Walcott improved as a result. It’s hard to know what more a reviewer might be expected to do, and A Taste in My Mind comes with the added piquancy of this one being invariably precise and probably right.