Saturday, 21 February 2009

Guardian review of the New and Collected Poems

What I regard as a marvellous review in today's Guardian here by Sean O'Brien. Some extracts:

...Szirtes's position in English poetry is unique, combining a loving engagement with the poetic forms and traditions of his adopted home with direct linguistic and imaginative access to European history, the Holocaust and the struggles of small nations with larger neighbours. He was born to the aftertaste and smell of fascism and Stalinism, and to knowledge of the baleful prospects they held for the Jewish communities of Europe...

...Just as the ordinary and the nightmarish are opposite sides of the same door, so Szirtes's relish of detail and the density of things and places is countered by a larger surrounding darkness - Europe in the night of politics and dream - which seems not to yield to knowledge. For the poet, though, the unknown is an entity in itself, its history and maps and customs arising from imaginative necessity: to declare somewhere unknown is, in rhetorical terms, a strategy for knowing something about it...

...this Collected resembles less a monument than a city or a continent, a Borgesian project of retrieving absolutely everything in the moment of its dissolution. Although in his swarming copiousness and love of the clutter of the specific Szirtes is a very different poet from the austere [Zbigniew] Herbert, he shares the Pole's unswerving attentiveness. Nothing will be spared; therefore let nothing be wasted, not even the horror of a chair where you might sit and write or think: "that one there, / yes, that one with its open arms / and its invitation to sit, / its somnolence, its stab at dignity / its emptiness, was the very devil."

For a good ten years or more I thought I was of no great account to the generation just ten years younger. That's perfectly natural. At forty or fifty you are too like their older brother or even their dad. They don't really get you, nor do they make much effort. As the Scottish poet at the Eliot evening said, 'I was at your reading at StAnza in St Andrew's last year. I thought it was very good. You know I couldn't really "hear" your poetry before'. No point in asking why on such occasions, but I did ask and received the only possible answer: 'I don't know.'

It is natural, I repeat, for one generation to distance itself from the previous one, to look further ahead and further back, so I expected nothing from the generation of which Sean O'Brien is a leading member. They mostly left me out of anthologies (though not O'Brien) and made friendly, but over-the-shoulder Push-off , this is our conversation, noises. Yes, yes, very understandable, I consoled myself, I don't really exist for them - and, for now, they are the generation in power. There was no New Generation campaign, such as they had, when I was on my first two or three books, nor did I think I would necessarily have been chosen as one of such if there had been. My actual readers, or so I guessed were, on the whole, older (I am, after all a product of the Cold War that was put to bed in 1989), and - sometimes, miraculously, younger.

But it was still an odd distancing since technically, and in other ways, we were heading in much the same direction: towards a greater attention to form, stanza and rhyme; a greater concern with the tangible outside world in language close to, but not kowtowing to, a distilled form of street discourse; a wariness of the grander egotistic gestures of confessionalism and of the slam-performance-showbusiness end of the art, and so forth. The 'curmudgeonly traditionalist v. heroic modernist' dichotomy, on which my generation grew up, was fading fast.

So it is a very welcome review. O'Brien is an excellent poet and a properly substantial and, better still, demanding critical intelligence. I don't always agree with his opinions, or didn't when his opinions were what they were, and might still be, and mine were as they were, and maybe still are sometimes, but I always respected those opinions of his, and him generally as un homme sérioux.

Sometimes I think my life has been a series of fallings upstairs. There is a fair amount of luck involved in that. I wish all good poets the same luck, and, occasionally, hope to pass some of it on.


Michelle said...

Thanks for the link, George. I enjoyed reading the review.

Padhraig Nolan said... my father always said 'you make your own luck!'

Gwil W said...

George has a chair with open arms and falls upstairs to bed. Thomas Bernhard sits behind a door all night in an Ohrensessel (a chair with ears) listening out for scandals at a cocktail party (in his book the Woodcutters). Perhaps it all depends on what kinds of chairs we use. My own chair is like one of those you can find piled in gloomy corners in church or village halls.

George S said...

It would be nice if that were true, P.J. You have to work of course, but luck, being what it is, is not guaranteed. As well to know that.

I suspect the whole caboodle is more random, sometimes more vicious. It has its kind moments. More cat than dog.