I’ve been meaning to get back to using this blog as a resource where I can keep as much of my writing as possible online, so let’s start with this review of Poems, Peoms & Other Atrocities by Garry Kilworth & Robert Holdstock, and Poems by Iain Banks & Ken MacLeod, which first appeared in Foundation 122, December 2015.
There is a poignant congruence in the appearance of these two books. A famous author, whose fiction has changed the nature of a genre, writes poetry in private which he exchanges with a friend and fellow author who also happens to write poetry. At one point the two friends start to talk, perhaps half facetiously, about getting these poems published. The famous author dies, suddenly and far too young, and the friend completes the task of collecting their poetry and getting it published. These are, therefore, the last published works of Robert Holdstock and Iain Banks.
There are differences, however. Iain Banks began writing poetry while at school. Most of the poems collected here were written between 1973 and 1977, thereafter they became more intermittent and ceased finally in 1981 (the year, perhaps coincidentally, that he began work on The Wasp Factory). Robert Holdstock, on the other hand, only began writing poetry late in life, and his work was still showing signs of maturing when he died.
Their colleagues, on the other hand, are both life-long poets, and it shows. Though only Garry Kilworth, easily the best of the four poets on display, has previously had a collection published, Tree Messiah (Envoi Poets, 1985), some of the contents of which are reprinted here.
Not that the poetic endeavours of the other three were completely unknown. Banks had used odd lines from his poetry as song lyrics in Espedair Street, and Use of Weapons begins and ends with poems, both of which are included here. Another poem, ‘Feu de Joie’, was the starting point for his novel A Song of Stone, though for some reason he excluded that poem from this collection. Ken MacLeod has had several of his poems published in various places, including one, ‘Erosion’ (which is included here), incorporated into his novel Intrusion. And Robert Holdstock ended his last novel, Avilion, with four poems, all of which are included here.
There are, not surprisingly, similarities between the two pairs of writers. Lifelong friends, constantly exchanging ideas, commenting on each other’s work, sharing tastes, it would be strange indeed if similarities didn’t emerge in their poetry. Holdstock and Kilworth, for instance, are both clearly influenced by poets like Whitman, Yeats and Ted Hughes, and the poets of the First World War, influences that would have been obvious even if Kilworth hadn’t pointed it out in his preface. For Banks and MacLeod, on the other hand, the guiding spirit is undoubtedly T.S. Eliot. In ‘Damage’, an early poem by Banks, for instance, lines like:
The Kitchen has a vast ancient coal range. Kept on
Once, when a pan with oil in it went up in flames,
She had to stop him; he wanted to put water on it.
seem to echo the mixture of particularity and detachment, the novelistic sense that we are looking from outside at others, ‘she’ and ‘he’, not ‘I’, that we find in ‘The Waste Land’. Though it is MacLeod who most knowingly and deliberately echoes Eliot in his best poem, ‘A Fertile Sea’, which recasts ‘The Waste Land’ with scientific imagery:
The engineer, one of Zhukov’s men,
was there when they took the camp.
He told me what they found:
powered by treadmills, rocket engines
dragged along on sleds.
Particularly in Banks’s work, however, I also kept hearing echoes of the songs he would have been listening to at the time; Pete Atkin and Clive James, for some reason, come across particularly clearly. The lines: ‘You ought to be able to tell, I think, / Whether they are going or coming back / By just leaving the gaps in the ranks’ from ‘Zakalwe’s Song’ surely recalls: ‘The heroes ride out in unbroken ranks / But with gaps in their number come back’ from Atkin’s ‘Sunlight Gate’. (And I can’t help thinking that the word ‘leaving’ in Banks’s verse should be ‘counting’, but there are several instances of what seem like careless word choice in these poems.) Having said that, MacLeod’s line in ‘Caesarian’ about ‘the gunships at Mylae’ also seems to belong with ‘The Persians went ashore at Iwo Jima / Christ was in the gold mines at Kolyma’ in Atkin’s ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All the Valley’.
It is interesting to note that ‘Zakalwe’s Song’, which closes Use of Weapons is dated December 73, presumably when he was drafting the novel (though the poem itself, read in isolation, contains nothing science fictional beyond its title), while ‘Slight Mechanical Destruction’, which opened the novel, is dated March 78. Four years later he would have been at work on other novels, but the gap suggests that despite the notoriously intractable structural problems, Use of Weapons was still very much on his mind.
Inevitably, when we encounter poetry from a writer better known as a novelist, we listen for the voice we are familiar with, for some crossover between prose and verse. In Banks’s work it is quite easy to find that connection. There is, of course, specific crossover in the case of the two poems from Use of Weapons, or the encounter on a bus described in the poem ‘Jack’ that would later be incorporated into his short story ‘Peace’. I suspect, also, that there is an echo of Use of Weapons in the poem ‘The Signpost at Midnight’, when he talks of: ‘this visual cue / A remnant like an island in / A drowned caldera’. Less directly, but more tellingly, lines like ‘the hand that cupped the breast, strikes the child’ in ‘Damage’ or the reference to ‘indulgent guilt’ in ‘9’ seem to prefigure the characteristic mode of his fiction, the view of the contradictions inherent in being human, the capacity for violence that underlies all tenderness. And the dyspeptic view of religion is there all along: ‘ “Fuck me!” (said Buddha from / The pyramid on Calgary), “If I’d known it was going / To be this sort of party / I wouldn’t have come.”’ (‘Outward Siege). (Parenthetically, I have no idea what Canada had done to deserve this, but I suspect that Banks really meant Calvary; as I said, there are some dodgy word choices.)
If we escape the linking of prose and poetry, however, there are many lines of superb and pure poetry from Banks, as, for instance, in an excellent poem called ‘Routenburn’:
As though to stop
The cells’ slow death and birth and beat and flow,
As though to stay
Our biped progress, product of our balanced fall,
As though to stem the flow, root out the flower
As traitors to a perfect calm,
Produced by our imagining.
MacLeod offers a smaller selection (28 poems as compared to 50 by Banks) and drawn from some 40 years as opposed to the 8 years of Banks’s poetic career, so it is not so easy to make linkages with the fiction. On the whole I’m inclined to say there aren’t such linkages, other than obliquely. The interests in science and in left-wing politics (‘The hammer rang in factory. The sickle sang in field.’ (‘Fall 1991’)) are there, and the curious mixture of atheism and fascination with religion (‘But you’re still here, walking / in writing on water, / in vexed texts talking / at cross purposes.’ (One for the Carpenter’). But these are the ideals and fascinations that make MacLeod, so they would naturally show up any of his writing. But I think his poetry stands on its own. A verse like: ‘But at sunset / or dawn / our shadows dwarf / the mountains’ (‘Faith as a Grain of Poppy Seed’) stems from a different sensibility than that which informs his fiction.
There’s something similar in the relationship between the poetry of Holdstock and Kilworth in their volume. Banks, of course, had stopped writing poetry before any of his fiction was published, so in a sense we read his novels as being informed by the earlier poems. Holdstock, on the other hand, only began writing poetry late in his career, so in contrast we see his poems as being informed by the earlier fiction. The relationship isn’t so clear cut, however. Although there are four poems that were included in Avilion, they do not specifically reference mythago wood or pick up on elements from the novels. Indeed, the best of the four, and one of the best poems in either collection, is “The Field of Tartan” which concerns his grandfather’s experiences in the First World War, something that Holdstock returns to in several of these poems. What we get from this juxtaposition, therefore, is that the devastating effect of the Great War on those who fought in it is one of the things that lies behind the mythago wood stories themselves. Moreover, this is not a specifically Holdstockian influence, it is there in Kilworth’s poetry also; even a love poem like ‘Ballistics’ contains imagery such as: ‘crawling wounded towards the wire, / love whines past my ears’. Though, to be fair, Kilworth’s war poetry tends to be less specific, more wide-ranging, a sense of commonality with the common soldier in wars throughout history.
One aspect of Holdstock’s fiction that we might find echoed in the poetry is a deep and abiding respect for nature. But then, that also comes across in the poetry of Ted Hughes, and he is one of the consistent influences in this work. This comes across somewhat jokily, for instance, in the selection of ‘Crab’ poems that are specifically described as ‘After Ted Hughes’s ‘Crow’ Poems’. Though I suppose we might wonder whether Holdstock is drawn to the work of Ted Hughes precisely because it recalls a mood and interest found in his own fiction.
Where we do tend to get a sense of Holdstock the novelist in these poems is in the fact that his pieces tend to be long and narrative. Even a love poem like ‘I Met a Ghost and Knew at Once I Loved Her’ has a sense of story shaping it:
What are you doing here? I asked.
She replied: I could ask the same of you.
Though she said it with a frown,
Stepping back a pace.
This is my world. Isn’t it? I asked.
Mine, she said, I’m sure of it.
Kilworth, in contrast, tends to write shorter, more impressionistic pieces, such as the lovely lines written on the occasion of his golden wedding anniversary: ‘You are / nutmeg sprinkled / on my dreams’. Though on the odd occasion that he does write a longer poem, such as ‘Salute to Boyhood’, the result is superb.
One other way in which the poetry links to the fiction is that, out of the four poets, Holdstock is the one who most references writing in his verse, as in ‘Butterfly Wings’:
Time tells tales,
This flash of life, this living,
This birth of new worlds, this growth of life,
This constancy of connections
Between the eyes,
The love, the loss, the laughter, rage,
Always leads to another page.
The fleeting rhyme that ends that passage is a rarity. Although Kilworth essays one Clerihew, none of the four attempts formal poetic structures. There are no sonnets here, no sestinas, no strict rhythms or tight rhyming schemes. All is free verse. Banks and MacLeod tend to be more serious, Holdstock and Kilworth are more willing to write silly or jokey pieces, several of them gathered together as ‘Peoms’ at the end of the book. Holdstock’s nature poem, ‘Gentle Green’, for instance, is just a set up for the climactic line: ‘the earth was a rooty, tooty, fruity, shooty thing’. Perversely, however, I think it is this willingness to be silly that marks, if anything, a greater seriousness about the pursuit of poetry.
Be that as it may, in these two books all four, Banks and Holdstock, Kilworth and MacLeod, prove themselves poets of genuine quality and interest. Though the circumstances under which both these books have appeared lends to them an underlying sense of sadness, reflected, perhaps, in Holdstock’s poem ‘Haunted’:
All but the turning, turning, the endless turn,
Ends in the yearning for one day more.