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Anglo-American Disch : YES, LET'S New and Selected Poems by Tom Disch (The Johns Hopkins University Press: $16.95, cloth; $8.95, paper; 112 pp.)

Summer Poetry Series: 4

August 13, 1989|Ian Gregson | Gregson will be a visiting professor in the English department at Cal State Long Beach in the fall semester. and

The cluster of qualities that first strike the reader of Tom Disch's poems--robust skepticism and realism, urbane wit, rueful irony, formal elegance--has not characterized much post-war U.S. poetry.

By contrast these qualities have been repeatedly found together in post-war British poetry. Ever since the Movement--Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie (see Page 6), Thomas Gunn--took control in the early '50s, British expectations about poetry have been molded by these characteristics.

This is not simply a poetic but an attitude to life. As such it does seem peculiarly British and is linked to an empiricist attitude, a belief in common sense, common decency, a mistrust of systematic thinking, extremism, of emotional intensity. So poets who have stepped out of line have often been accused, by implication, of being un-British--this is partly what Larkin meant when, asked about Ted Hughes' "Crow," he replied: "Personally, I prefer Peter Rabbit."

So it's surprising to find Disch, an American poet, writing in a Movement way--though not so surprising that, as a result, he has been more warmly received in Britain than in the United States.

This kind of writing has a number of strengths. It's rarely pretentious, or obscure, or formless--all weaknesses to which American poetry is prone. It's usually intelligent and readable, and it's often funny. It has many of the strengths of the realist novel; it's especially good at narrative, at describing character and at reflecting on society--Hardy is an important ancestor.

In "The Rapist's Villanelle" Disch summons up an upper-middle class, cosmopolitan social milieu simply by noting the victim's "hand-knitted sweater from the Isle/ Of Skye, (her) apres-ski of bold chartreuse."

The rapist's state of mind emerges through the way the villanelle form frames his words. The lines, "She spent her money with such perfect style" and "I couldn't help myself; I had to smile" both appear four times. This repetition suggests how, to the rapist, the victim's compulsive shopping and his obsessive desire are linked--become somehow equivalent.

That the rapist makes this association reveals his cool depravity. This and the poem's formal elegance hint at violence lurking below the chic surface--what Harold Pinter has called "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet."

This is a memorable poem. However, there are narrownesses connected with the Movement poetic, most of which arise from the voice adopted by these poets--the hard-headed, no-nonsense way they talk to the reader. They keep telling us how tough they are, how unsentimental, that they're relatively without illusions, that they don't suffer fools gladly but that they don't have too high an opinion of themselves. It's perhaps not a coincidence that most of the Movement poets were at Oxford at the same time as Mrs. Thatcher, in a postwar period of formative exhaustion and bleakness.

Consequently, there are a number of cliches associated with poetry influenced by the Movement.

And Disch, despite his different background, is not immune to them. In this book, too, there are rueful references to aging, to how bald and/or fat the poet is getting; to the terrible historical violence, etc., that you can learn about in art galleries; to the habits other people have that bore you--for instance, of showing you their holiday slides; to other things that seem boring (e.g. people who "work on a tan") but that--hang on a minute--are actually interesting (for the sun has an immemorially beneficent influence).

It's fortunate, then, that Disch has chosen to add something different to his basically British style.

Some of this may simply be a matter of his different temperament--for example he isn't dour like his British models. Life is not for him, as for Larkin, "first boredom, then fear." "Yes, Let's" is eponymously positive and charged throughout with exuberance, and his "High Purpose in Poetry: A Primer" prescribes acceptance of life as the proper attitude in poetry.

Most important, however, he adds American influences to his British ones, so that he is most accurately seen as a hybrid, introducing British influence into U.S. poetry, as Thom Gunn, among others, has introduced American influence into British poetry.

At a formal level, this allows Disch to use free-verse techniques to keep a poem's loose ends untied in order to suggest an existential asymmetry, the jagged edges of experience, avoiding the monolithic four-squareness of stricter forms.

More broadly, it means that realism often encounters modernism in Disch's work. This produces some of his most effective poems. And it does seem the case that some of the most successful contemporary poems (American and British) occur when this encounter takes place--realist poets struggling with modernism, modernist poets impelled to introduce an air of "reality."

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