Monday, 9 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 7

Sándor Márai 1900-1989

The great Hungarian novelist, Sándor Márai, an earlier visitor to England in 1938, had noted how in England:

One has to relearn everything. It is not enough for those wishing to take up residence to accept the state of affairs: whoever finds himself here will bend or break but will not leave without a scratch. It is not enough to dissimulate, to pretend, to nod slyly and politely indicating that you accept everything: the people, their habitations, their social arrangements, their ways of dressing, their formalities… Whoever wants to live here must yield up his secrets and hand himself over heart and soul. Careful! they can tell! They are not interested in the overtly tamed, are contemptuous of any member of the bleating herd looking startled but ambling behind the leading sheep, slyly grazing in the opulent meadow. What they want is for you to accept them, nay, more, that you should believe in them entirely, not just in their laws, in the rules of behaviour that govern the various forms of life here, but in the spirit too, the spirit out of which the law was wrought. …You have to surrender everything if you want to live here…

You cannot surrender everything of course. And dissimulation is too tiring to carry on forever. You cannot surrender, nor can you ever quite become the thing itself. You are obliged to remain a certain kind of immigrant writer. A certain kind, because immigrant writers are not a single community. There are certain broad groups, those, for example, who speak English at the time they arrive and those who don’t; those with a colonial history, those without, and so forth. But the groups as a whole, don’t hold together. They are not communities as such. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they are all travellers, all 'elsewhere', at the margins of something. What gives them hope – gives us hope I should now say – is the feeling that the centre to which we are marginal is itself increasingly comprised of travellers, while continuing to offer a solid enough core of language and usage, of voice and manners – a grammar if you like – enough at any rate to nourish those who need it. A mother tongue, or at least a foster-mother tongue. A mother lode.

There is an image of marginality I have used before. In this image my works are a Budapest tenement block on the outskirts of some rambling English estate. The tenement should ideally be filled with living people, speaking a variety of languages, but above all, English, because England is where they are. The land on which that block stands is what this lecture is about.

There is an early poem of Kenneth Allott’s, in fact the very first in the handsome new Collected Poems, edited by Michael Murphy, called ‘Men Walk Upright’. Let me pick a few verses from it.

Come into the streets now away from the multiple shops,
The glossy automobiles and the Roman bank-fronts.
Here is a new factory with elegant chimneys
    But mark the surrounding

Mortified brick and mortar which will not be renewed,
The yellow lace curtains, the rubbish bins in the gutter,
The noise of the unwashed children who somehow are cheerful
    With their tops or their conkers…

… It is the freedom of light, the right to go walking
Well-fed in drawing rooms and gardens which has refined
Us if only to an impotence of anger. Think.
    You too are an animal.

I remember the factories. I even remember the unwashed children. They went to school with me. Elsewhere in the poem Allott talks of “The democratic plains, the pampered grass, / The imbecile willows, weeping into the stream”.

What I would like is that the road should lead me through that democratic plain, into a city that is half mirage, half ruin. It would be the city frequented by poets such as Joseph Brodsky, Derek Mahon and other such uproots. Visitors there should wander through the grander halls of Eliot and Auden and Rilke and Stevens, and find themselves congregating, as if by chance, at the sort of places where travellers normally tend to wind up:  in art galleries, concert halls, cafes and restaurants. Then, in the evening, when such establishments are closing, they should meander back to their dream hotels through streets that seem remarkably like home.


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