Maria Johnston assesses John Fowles's 'long dream' of poetry
"His own verse was feeble in comparison; he would rather have died than show it to anyone else." This, from John Fowles's 1969 novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, concerns the protagonist Charles Smithson who has, in a weak moment, been driven to express himself in verse. Fowles himself was prey to the same poetic proclivities, the product of which was the 1973 publication of his Poems by Ecco Press in America. He would, some years later, pronounce this collection the "funeral relic" of his "long dream" of poetry. Fowles himself died in 2005, but thanks to the editorial labours of Adam Thorpe his poetry has not died with him and the long dream lives on in the form of this Selected Poems.
Fowles is not the first dead writer to have his unpublished material put on public show. Accordingly, Thorpe's introduction comprises an earnest plea for the novelist as a "fine and serious poet" and, as always in such cases, his hitherto overlooked poetic artistry. To his credit, Thorpe does not evade commenting on the poems that failed to make the cut, those that, in his estimation, were too "prosaic" or that displayed "acidic bitterness against the outside world". (Readers of Fowles's Journals will already have sampled that distinctively Fowlesian brand of bile.)
Nor was Fowles, in his journals, short of opinions when it came to judging the work of his Parnassian colleagues. DH Lawrence "isn't really a poet at all, but an emotion; a wordy emotion. A hit-and-miss man with words", while WB Yeats, by contrast, "married music and meaning". On the strength of this Selected, Fowles's evaluation of Lawrence may be seen to rebound uncannily on himself. Moreover, Fowles's translations of other poets come as a relief at the book's end where the strident monotony of his voice gives way to the ribald humour of La Fontaine and, most striking, the sixth-century Japanese Man'yoshu: "Like a letter in faint ink, / the geese returning in the mist" – a shimmering, delicately-wrought simile. Perhaps it was the process of working with and thinking through such poetry that inspired what, to my mind, is the most moving and truest of Fowles's poems:
Not an owl on the bough, after all;
but a patch of grey light forcing
through fir. A light-bird,
a bird-light. Retinal phantom.
Or poem to my shortening sight.
This is more than mere scene-painting; the poem comes into vision, line by line into being; a bird, then a light, then a poem, finally, all three. The chimes of repetition across the lines ("light" ricochets to become, in the last instance, "sight") enact the persistent resonances of a lived moment, the vitality of art itself – proof that short-sightedness may be a blessing as the poet probes beyond the apparent surface detail to the interplay of shifting realities beneath. Too often in this Selected the poet's myopic approach – intransigent in its will to communicate a message or summon vague emotional states – impedes the true poem coming into sight or sound.
It is when Fowles is concentrating on the natural world, the world beyond the self's narrow coordinates, that the most achieved poetic events unfold. "Accipiter" is both poem and bird as Fowles engineers new word-combinations, lines as mobile frame-works, in order to harness and release the sparrow-hawk's dynamic thrust: "slit // the hurtle / the tilt and swathe". Too often, we come up against language as its deadest (if not deadliest). There is often a bullying, haranguing quality to the poet's address, as in "Linnets": "You absurdities, you antedaters / of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, how / dare you never sing the same song / twice?" By contrast, the same scenario is sensitively rendered in prose by Fowles in a journal entry: "The linnets that haunt the garden [...] with their fine Stravinsky-like songs and their ancient Chinese harp flight calls". Ironically, he regards himself at this time to be suffering a poetic dry-spell.
And how far from poetry many of the lines in this Selected seem. "And every winter things get worse" is the trite demise of "A Tree in the Suburbs". "So shout it in their stupid faces/ or dress it up in art / but nobody wants what you know /inside your deepest heart," says "The Secret", clearly not in a whisper. Despite Thorpe's preview, the Greek sequences are largely unmemorable: "Mycenae" might have some interest as a radio play while "Apollo" (1952) seems merely another opportunity for Fowles to grumble loftily about the state of this fallen world; the "slick expatriates", the "vile Greek churches / staling the landscape like poisonous funghi".
Ultimately, Fowles seems far more devoted to the poetic stance – with his grandiloquently-termed "poetic vision" – than with the Yeatsian "marriage" of "music and meaning". Given more to rigid ideas than to the spirited music of thinking, his words are rarely charged in ways that might enlarge and enliven the mind or the moment. For Fowles, the writing of poetry provided "relief from the constant play-acting of fiction", as it was "difficult to keep [one's private self] out of a poem". Perhaps his failure as a poet stems both from this tendency to see the world in polarities (poetry/fiction) and to miss the exhilarating, endless play of ambiguities that vivifies the poetic act. This from Fowles the artful writer of fiction: "We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words." Readers of his Selected Poems may well wish that he had contented himself with the wordless variety.