Monday, 17 May 2021

Sheenagh Pugh

Sheenagh Pugh (1950-)

I really can’t remember reading her selected poems, I think I liked them but didn’t find them outstanding. I have lost my notes. Upsetting. I am following up things I missed, and I have been reading some pretty weak poetry… have to say I enjoyed reading Pugh as a rest from that. It seemed worth getting the books again (both the Selected Poems, 1990 and 2009, this time) and investigating just to keep the record complete. The information I found was that she had a pamphlet out in 1977, Crowded by Shadows, and followed this up with a full book, What a Place to Grow Flowers, in 1979. Another dozen books have followed. The Anglo-Welsh thing is not a source of ideas in her work – she grew up in Birmingham and, although she has generally published with Welsh firms, she has ignored the Anglo-Welsh conventions.

A lot of the poems are in rhyme, which also implies (mostly) regular line lengths. I looked at rhyming poems in the 70s and 80s, it seemed to be an issue. Also it lends itself to counting, which could give you a indicator for change over time. A lot of them were assonating. I didn’t know if this was subtle and effective, or a compromise. Pugh seems to like off-rhymes.

Involve him wholly, and no other partner.
Circled in his arms, he acts out the caress
of the words; lets his hands wander on his shoulder,
under his shirt… step by step he betrays

all the trade secrets; make the audience watch
the truth about all those who love in rhyme.
There never is a partner you can touch;
whoever writes the words, they are for him.

I can't qualify this accurately. I am not sure the rhymes make any difference to the artistic impact. Then, they are weak: watch/touch doesn't really ring, neither does rhyme/ him. They are very unemphatic as a decoration. The rhymes are consistently weak, so this must be a conscious preference. After a while, full rhymes would clash with the verse. I think the pattern of near-rhymes must reassure the poet that the work is finished and organised. So the match betrays/caress is significant. It doesn't seem like a rhyme at all, but the context of many similar harmonies means that it must be counting as one. To sum up, s matches with a z sound (the voiced equivalent of s), and an ei diphthong rhymes with an e, the first component of the diphthong. There is no text-book that says this is a rhyme. There was a rapid decline of rhyme in the Sixties, so the use of rhyme was tied up with political (or theological?) disputes about the status of the new Sixties culture. People were fed up of rhyme at that point (notoriously, the same people who were irritated by rhyming poems enjoyed pop songs with rhyming lyrics). This is not necessarily a way of getting to the heart of a poet, or any poet. There was a revival of rhyme in the years around 1980 – as a way of restoring the past or maybe of fending off criticisms about jettisoning the artistic past. A lot of those restorative rhymed poems weren’t very good. The formalism wasn’t very expressive. With Pugh the method seems self-effacing… the lines are neat and the rhymes are easy to miss.

Because I have read the Faber Poetry Introduction volumes, I can see that there is a resemblance between Pugh writing a novel in a poem and some of the things in the 70s issues of those anthologies, where Andrew Motion’s “incomplete narratives” may have been the initial examples. (They are in volume 3.) David Harsent also wrote poems which which seemed to summarise novels. There is a sort of echo of George Mackay Brown in some of Pugh's poems (Brown was also taking sagas, a kind of early novel, and detaching events from them to make poems). This is the harvest from reading lots of 70s poetry, but the traces of these models in Pugh's poems are pretty thin, she is an original poet and her poems are highly finished. A poem I liked particularly was ‘Stonelight’:

Each stone happens
in its own way. One stands
true in a house-wall.

Anger quickens another : it flies,
fills a mouth with blood.

Shaped and polished, one shines
in the eyes of many.

One seems inert, earth-embedded;
underneath, colonies are teeming.

But the best are seal-smooth,
and the hand that chose them

sent them skimming, once, twice,
ten times over the ocean, to the edge
of sight, and whenever they bruise the water’s skin,
an instant is bruised

into brightness. The eye flinches. When they sink,
if they sink, the light they left

wells out, spills, seeds itself, prickling
like stars, on a field that never takes
the same shape twice.

This is all about objects, which may be a distraction for a poet so interested in people. Actually it refers indirectly to people, raising walls, throwing stones at each other, and so on. I like it partly because it is about stones flying and giving off light (on water they splash), which are not things you expect stones to do.
I could make an attempt to define the core of the poems. If you think about Flemish paintings, a lot of them are religious, and they show either martyrdoms or contacts with the divine, such as the annunciation. These moments are profoundly atypical, and that is the basis for choosing them as subjects of representation. If you think about Dutch paintings, you are typically seeing domestic scenes, which are realistic in the sense that what they are showing is present to the senses – not divine or lethal. The scenes are usually tranquil, and they are often typical – a scene which you could often have seen repeated. This opposition can shed light on Pugh – her poems are like Dutch paintings in the features just described. There is a moment when the critic Christopher Whyte remarks that Mackay Brown's work aestheticises violence – explanations for this vary but it is certainly violent death is at the heart of Brown’s idea of art, the way he selects moments to describe. Pugh very rarely describes deaths – although there are memorable instances for the sailor René Bellot, died searching for Franklin, and a soldier in Napoleonic service who was buried at Vilnius in Lithuania. So a death every hundred pages, maybe. Pugh’s poems are profoundly probable. They create a likeness of the world of the senses, and of the world that empathy discloses to us. They don’t deal with saints, heroes, hysterics. At the core, the poems consistently present a credible likeness of something, and that something is always probable.
My impression is that the poems do not imitate the voice of the characters and also do not imitate the voice of the poet – which would get in the way of hearing the characters. The function of establishing a situation and relationship between people is so central that expressive mimesis is forced to the edge. The qualities of lucidity and exposition reach alpha while the quality of expressivity stays at gamma. The voice is inventive but neutral. We don’t seem to get further as we go through 150 poems - we don’t have a fascinating personality to recover. There is no ideology (to use the terms of the time). However, the poet is more interested in writing about other people than in creating a monument to herself.
The density of output points to creative stability. The poems give the impression of stability and credibility and the continuity bears that out – underpinning the political judgements. A limited interest in experiment goes along with plausibility and conviction. Pugh does not have the casino belief of some people back in the Seventies, that in an immensely improbable event the familiar could be replaced by something completely unfamiliar, and that a radical discontinuity would erase present life to replace it with something which the participants could not foresee. That attitude went along with verbal paradoxes and sleights of hand, which Pugh does not deploy. Her poetry relies on what is probable: the scenes are easy to imagine because she evokes what is probable at each point. Her Left view of politics is convincing because we must find the probable more likely than the apocalyptic. Governemnt is based on data series, but not in the way a casino is.

If there is a central thing about Pugh, it is probably an interest in the autonomy of the characters she is describing – the priority is to satisfy our curiosity about them, but before that there is a valuation of them and an interest in their situations. An ethical stance is inevitably the point of departure for this, and this is the steady signal which we lock on to as we read. It could be annoying if the poet used the characters to make moral points – which would be what the reviewers picked up on, giving the poet marks for upholding conservative moral values. There was really a lot of that, in those decades, and poets tried to pass tests rather than to write good poems. Another feature which I could count, and graph, is the smug concluding quatrain. Pugh never writes one of those, as far as I can see. Pugh does not think she knows all the answers and apparently does not think preset answers actually exist. This was actually what was agitating conservatives, at the time.
The neatness may be an aesthetic in itself... I am not sure about this. All the poems are beautifully clear but the ideas didn’t seem to be enhanced by the regularity of form. Pugh didn’t spend the 80s talking about how dangerous radicalism was. Her poems are liberal and empathetic. She rarely sets up situations in which there are two possible outcomes and one is more just than the other– an elementary device of tension. This choice contributes to the stability of the poem; we empathise more because the situation seems real, rather than being a set-up to put over a pre-existing preference, political or moral. We focus more on the people as people. Yet, when Pugh talks about social arrangements, she always favours the powerless – tyranny comes over as widespread and evil. Many poets, in the 70s, saw society as unstable and about to lose itself in radical change – Pugh does not show Britain as being like that at all. The future is not an imminent and wonderful thing. But, this stability allows us, once again, to identify with the characters, and to see their predicament as deep and continuing. Pugh depicts the logic of events without seeing the outcome as admirable.

Subjectivity comes out in the choice of landscapes– in a whole series of poems set in the Arctic, related to the Franklin expedition. (Actually it is two sets, at pages 61-66 and 98-116 of the Selected Later Poems.) British poets have the habit of seeing such high latitudes as a product of the imagination, or as a scenery for imaginative expression. An early example is JF Hendry’s Marimarusa, not published until 1973 although it was composed around 1947. Another Forties poet, W.S. Graham, wrote about the Antarctic (probably) in Malcolm Mooney’s Land. The Franklin poems follow poems about Iceland in her 1979 book. It may be indicative for Pugh that she spends most time on Lady Franklin, Franklin's widow, who denied the status of widow in order to manipulate public opinion, back in Britain, to raise funds for search expeditions to find his crew and bring them back alive. Lady Franklin did not sail to Northern Canada. Pugh ignores spectacular polar landscapes in order to write about the character’s need to mix grief with practicality, and the need to market grief and convert it into a media story – unheroic but also original themes. Pugh seems at this point to be avoiding the transcendent, the superhuman scale.
The translations in the 1990 Selected are from German. One is from a poem by the Swiss poet JP Hebel, and deals with the idea that the city of Basel will one day be a ruin inhabited by wild animals. This reminded me of the modern Swiss poet, Hermann Burger, whose Kirchberger Idyllen are also an imitation of Hebel in some sense. I really liked Kirchberger Idyllen.
Conclusion? This is significant poetry and in an ideal world I would extend "Nothing is Being Suppressed" to include it. But, there it is. I couldn't write about all the significant poets writing in the 1970s. As for my notes, I think the Search function fails for a certain category of text files. And I have a few thousand files in that format.

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