A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:
‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’
A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:
‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’
This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!
I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written
‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’
Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.
The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:
‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)
‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)
Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.
Ian Brinton 21st December 2015