:: Article

So smart and tight: a review of R.F. Langley’s Complete Poems

By Jack Belloli.

R.F. Langley, Complete Poems, ed. Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet, 2015)

In their prologue to Shakespeare’s First Folio, the surviving members of his theatre company invite its readers to find their own terms on which to praise him. ‘[T]o your diverse capacities, you will find enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, than it could be lost.’ This is a risky balance. Certainly, if we take it for granted that Shakespeare’s wit will not be lost, any act of reading will be able to trace that wit – but we can’t quite deny the possibility that such trust might be lost, and that this might be the case if peculiar facets of his wit remain hidden. The editors’ next words offer the only salvo against this. ‘Read him, therefore; and again, and again.’

Roger Langley spent the length of his professional life, from 1961 to 1999, as a grammar school English teacher, returning his attention again and again to a small selection of Shakespeare’s plays, a process which he once described as ‘feed[ing]’ him ‘day by day’. They fed into the composition of 48 poems, steadily alongside his teaching and then at a sharply increasing rate between his retirement and his death in 2011. So, now, how should our diverse capacities be brought to bear on lines like these, from ‘Man Jack’, the poem with which this complete edition begins?

                                 A twig is evidently

a love bouquet. The apples are a gift.

The spellbound owl sits round as such

upon a shelf. Its silence cries out loud

as if you touched it on a wound. It is

embarrassed and delighted with what Jack

has found. And that it had, itself, the wit

required to secretly decipher it.

Interpreting them is a matter of working out where interpretation is already going on, within the scene that the poem sets up. Whatever ‘Jack / has found’, it is something that the ‘spellbound owl’ has managed to respond to by ‘itself’ – but all we know about that response is that it’s a secret, borne witness to only by a resilient silence. And this vision of the owl as an engaged hierophant is revealed after it has been set up as a static object that both provokes and resists sense-making of its own: unlike the twig or the apples, this owl should be seen not as something else but ‘as such’, fixed on a shelf and shorn of a transactional context. This poem fosters reading again and again, because interpretation is always reaching its limits: eventually, one runs up against a secret gesture to which the only response is either to acknowledge that there is some other conscious being that could make or decipher it, or to fantasise the being that could.

It’s a challenge posed by the workings of these lines themselves. I want to take the rhyme of ‘it’ with ‘wit’ as an expression of the clinched interpretation that it describes, and of the delight that accompanies it: these are the first (and, until a closing couplet, only) consecutive lines to end on a rhyme in a poem of nearly a hundred. But to ascribe a meaning to this gesture immediately leaves me wondering whether I can do something similar with the near-rhyme of ‘delighted’ with ‘decipher it’, or ‘silence’ with ‘delighted’; or with the off-rhyme of ‘round’ with ‘wound’, surrounding a description of a soundless owl in which the word ‘sound’ fails to appear. This is an experience that Langley himself has acknowledged: the closer he re-read each successive line of his poem as a basis for composing the next, the more the ‘millions and millions of assonances and consonances and rhymes that have got nothing to do with imitation at all’ became ‘something like those little things that [Richard] Wollheim talks about that make a picture into a body and pull it together’. Perhaps the only way to account appropriately for the embarrassments and delights that I run into when I read ‘Man Jack’ is to associate them with the pleasures and potential misjudgements involved in interacting with another human body, as we enter into and renegotiate our relationships. This motif runs right through into Langley’s late poems, collected here for the first time: ‘Videlicet’ is spliced with repeated images of a friend, Kirsten, ‘emerging from the hedge’, ‘over the / hedge, above the hedge, across the hedge’, her capacity ‘to make a point’ always related to her position within the local environment that she and Langley find themselves in.

*

We should take seriously Langley’s implicit invitation to see poetics as a mode of holistic reading: as a discourse which demands as much attention to the previous line in the poem as to what’s happening in a hedge or to Wollheim’s Painting as an Art, and – more challengingly – demands that these different forms of attention inflect each other. It’s an invitation encouraged by Jeremy Noel-Tod’s editing of this volume, which gives a poem-by-poem bibliography of the sources from which Langley copied extracts into his journal after or as he composed. They make an eclectic reading list, incorporating philosophers from Plato to Heidegger, natural history, anthropology of religion; Shakespeare is ubiquitous enough to be left unrecorded (the Jack of ‘Man Jack’ is a ‘little cousin’, echoing Richard III); the most significant recurring texts are British object-relations psychoanalysis and its influence in turn on the art historians Adrian Stokes and Richard Wollheim. Noel-Tod specifies a chapter and an edition but no more specific cues or clues, and it’s an editorial gesture in total sympathy with the poet, managing both to draw us in and keep things hidden.

It’s good to see some features of these poems no longer hidden: there’s pleasure to be had in uncovering the inspiration for elements of favourite poems that might otherwise look accidental, disjunctive or (in Noel-Tod’s own, earlier words) like ‘private surrealism’. A short, startling description of a heron at the end of one poem turns out to be in dialogue with a passage from Tess of the D’Urbevilles. But Langley always prized the ‘disorientation’ that such a lack of threads generated in his readings; he recorded in one of his journals, themselves an importantly riddling source, that he would not want the details that feed his poems to be ‘smoothed out into some sort of consequential sequence’ or ‘meaningful biography’. The challenge for future readers of Langley will be to read his poems with his sources, in a way that keeps their wit rough. One approach will be to show how arguments from Langley’s philosophical reading broaden our sense of the thinking that his poems conduct in response, of which Adam Piette’s reading of the volume in the light of Stokes, Wollheim and the psychoanalyst Marion Milner is a thrilling example.

My much more tentative raid on this library has been most stimulating when I stopped thinking of these texts as somehow categorically distinct from the poems they inspire: rather than seeing them as sources to which Langley applied some innate poetic talent, his use of them might invite us to consider how these texts already contain the seeds of a poetics. Stokes’s remarkable decision to quote the length of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’ in one of his voluminous footnotes to Michelangelo, and to draw particular attention to the gathering effect of its repeated final line, has left me wondering about their influence on moments when Langley repeats whole lines (sometimes to more agitating effect: ‘The customers are monsters. / The customers are monsters.’) More generally, the most frequently-cited chapter of Milner’s A Life of One’s Own describes how she could become absorbed in listening to music, not ‘by direct listening’ but ‘by mak[ing] some sort of internal gesture by which listening just happened’. If this is a skill, and ‘so apparently simple a skill’ at that, it is one that she is constantly forgetting how to do. In the closest that he wrote to a poetics, a short ‘note’ for an anniversary edition of PN Review that heads Complete Poems, Langley describes his composition process as one of testing ‘all available strategies’ in Milner’s haphazard fashion until, for example, he found out ‘what would happen if rhyme came into do some of the running for me’. This discovery, in the mid-1980s, generated ‘Mariana’, this collection’s dazzling second poem, and the five poems of the Jack sequence, which began with ‘Man Jack’ and were ultimately published together as an Equipage pamphlet in 1998. Jack is introduced as ‘your man in things’, and the poems invest their energy in the difficulties of taking that phrase literally: what does it mean to imagine a being that vibrates between being an animate, intelligent agent and the things such agency works on? ‘Jack’ is both a go-to English name for a boy, fool or everyman figure and – in the words of W.W. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language – consequentially used ‘to name various implements which supply the place of a boy or attendant’. In these poems, for all that Langley wishes to cajole his alter-ego Jack to the point at which ‘three hundred motor units in him act as one’, Jack keeps resisting such technical efficiency, the trick of how to make him work always slipping away. And while the sequence’s delight in rhyme is what makes it immediately distinctive, it lives up to Jack’s, and Milner’s, example by not running through it reliably, and instead constantly interacting and interfering with a range of other verse techniques that come clattering into Langley’s poetics with it. In ‘Poor Moth’, for example, rhymes insistently fall at the end of sentences in a manner that almost smashes into sing-song doggerel, were it not for the decision to end each line strictly after six syllables:

The mop is in the corner,

the hand towel folded to this

size. So everything is trim

in its replies. And three small

moths have six small eyes. (‘Poor Moth’)

In ‘Tom Thumb’, this tension between techniques is complicated, as rhymes and half-rhymes now fall within sentences, often on adjacent words or different parts of speech. In this passage, each word that ends a sentence or main phrase rhymes with a word in the middle of the subsequent one, but at the end of a dodecasyllabic line.

                                 And Jack, as usual, was not

at hand to help me do the damage, manage not

to curse out loud. We both know why. Distracted by

a resonating croak, he watched a heron stroke

unhurried to the south-east, past a rosy cloud

to the full moon.

In ‘Jack’s Pigeon’, Shakespearean rhythms fade in and out of its lines of ten syllable: the dying pigeon of the title is given the name Ophelia, and phrases from her burial scene in Hamlet are summoned throughout. But, in its final stanza, as rhymes start to coincide more regularly with the ends of lines, one line breaks the syllable count in order to start inviting a metrical reading and another avoids an end-rhyme to keep the syllable count.

There’s no more to be done. No more to be done.

And what there was, was what we didn’t do.

It needed two of us to move as one,

to shake hands with a hand that’s shaking, if

tint were to be tant, and breaking making.

Never acting as one, or achieving the status of anything like a fixed form, these features play off each other in a manner which nevertheless brings the sequence together: testing all available strategies is a matter of managing the family resemblances between these versions of Jack, as their five verse faces emerge from the hedge.

These resemblances might not even be immediately apparent to a reader of Complete Poems. The order that Noel-Tod and Langley’s widow chose for this collection is inherited from the folder in which Langley kept final proofs of his poems. One of its consequences is that, unlike in both Jack and 2000’s o’erhastily-named Collected Poems, the ‘Jack’ sequence gets broken up. The opening of this volume follows the order of the 1994 volume Twelve Poems, which ‘Man Jack’ leads but which precedes the composition of the remaining four; when they do appear, ‘The Night Piece’, the only other poem new for the Collected, lies between them. For all that Noel-Tod wants to celebrate Jack’s arrival as an ‘imaginative surrogate’ who marks a shift in Langley’s career, he equally wants to avoid ‘narratives of development or progression’ – and over-identification of when a particular set of techniques becomes important risks bringing back, as Langley said he didn’t wish, ‘the self as the primary organising feature of the writing’. Distributing the poems of this longest identifiable sequence turns Langley’s oeuvre as a whole into something like an extended sequence, in which his ongoing practice of reading and rereading his way into writing becomes visible. No particular origin need be traced for a penchant for rhyme or syllabics, or for the Olsonian open field poetics most prominent in the early work – and they can keep returning in unexpected places. In these lines from 2005’s ‘Touchstone’, a free verse poem of five-line stanzas suddenly introduces, against the grain of its line-breaks, two phrases of three iambs which form a couplet, and invite us retrospectively to hear the same rising rhythm in the previous lines:

Before it took a breath, the

robin was caught out in

what it saw, and what

it had to say. A touching

 

welladay? Not so.

 

Another bird lets fall a special prosody, in snatches of old tunes.

*

‘After all there / are not many cores.’ This sentence from ‘Blues for Titania’ is inspired by a short article by John Berger, in which he divides sculptures by Brancusi into ‘containers’, which represent the world in all its imperfections, and ‘cores’, which strive for a Platonic refinement of matter. The acceptance that cores are rare is an act of renunciation suited, or so it seems, to the final stanza of a poem which has now turned away from a mode of observation of insects in which ‘detail is so sharp / and so minute that the total form suggests / infinity’. It has now returned to one in which ‘the wasps and moths and feathers are riff-raff / off the verge’. There is something exhausting about maintaining the absolutely free play of the mind that Langley seeks to explore. The infinity that the ‘total form’ ‘suggests’ is, in a phrase taken from a Stokes comment on van Eyck, a condition of ‘infinite loneliness’. And, as this poem’s title suggests, it’s a dilemma that crystallises around Shakespeare’s Bottom. To attempt to recount an experience of absorption after it has finished is, in Shakespeare’s words, ‘past the wit of man’, and leaves me with a feeling of dejection as quasi-spiritual as it is quasi-erotic. But, in Langley’s words which are almost Shakespeare’s, to ‘find my feet’ within the lonely dream until I ‘walk up and down and / sing, that they shall hear that I am not afraid’ is to be willing to make an ass of myself. The poem with ‘no bottom’ that would do justice to my absorption will have to pay the price of making a core rather than a container: its bottomless depths might create conditions in which any particular Bottom risks being translated out of existence. The rude mechanicals recur around the midpoint of this collection, in poems in which the desire for immediate experience – an immediacy itself felt as desire – is fiercely interrogated. In ‘Cash Point’, the ludic ‘semiosis of the forest’ in which object’s ‘bodies seemed / incorporate with their names’, and Bottom can joke about Peaseblossom’s relationship to Mistress Squash, might be delightful. But it is troublingly of a piece with the deluded dramaturgy of the mechanicals, who worry that a representation of a lion will be as scary as a lion itself. Over the course of ‘Brute Conflict’, the urge not to want to count, in favour of what would thus apparently be a more immediate experience of pebbles on a beach, is set against a ‘counter-wish’ to count. (The term, as with ‘brute conflict’ itself, is Wollheim’s, but the pun is Langley’s.)

Now five thousand starlings

no one ever counted

have settled in the reeds.

In a rare journal entry from 1991 in which he reflects on his own teaching of art and literature, Langley builds up to the maxim that ‘life is bound to be framing and counting’. But if we are bound to count, the risk is that we will fetishise one particular kind of counting. One of the most curious and under-discussed features of Langley’s poems is their worry over economic thinking. He drew attention to his recurrent fascination with the etymological line that runs between ‘toe’, ‘token’ and ‘teach’, which are all ultimately associated with the taking of signs for wonders – but we should also note a parallel set of references to selling and clipping tickets, to the sticks and stacks and ‘moments on the stock’ that provide our metaphors for the market. It makes for one of the complex aspects of Langley’s relationship with friends and admired contemporaries such as J.H. Prynne, Douglas Oliver and Peter Riley, for whom the political implications of accurate linguistic register under late capital are more central and polemic issues. As a theme, it was raised by Langley as far back as ‘Matthew Glover’, an early local-historical investigation in the manner of Olson’s Maximus Poems, which spools out from the record of a ‘distract[ed]’ nineteenth-century farmer ‘who would not / speak for or against’ the enclosure of the commons. It is hard to judge how this position relates to Langley’s own, and whether we should judge him for it: on the inside cover of this volume, Prynne praises his friend’s ‘lifelong expertise in stillness and quietude’, and we might ponder where ‘quietude’ becomes ‘quietism’. When images of investment and ‘selling out, buying in’ pop up among beetles and martins, I get tempted to read these poems as variations on seventeenth-century Cavalier lyrics of rural retreat, conspicuously not talking about money in the way that Robert Herrick conspicuously avoids mentioning the regicide in favour of fairy kings. The embarrassment seems to come to a head when two of the Bottom poems are entitled ‘Sixpence a Day’ (the financial recompense the mechanicals expect to get from their acting) and ‘Cash Point’, a title that itself interrogates the flipside of simply dismissing fairy-mechanical literalism: the economy of representation which simply allows two fingers to represent ‘the hole in the wall’ might, if left unchecked, become associated with the way that modern holes in walls separate value from its material origins. The implicit way out of this comes if one imagine that cash, like Snout’s fingers, can point, expressing truth neither through a defined logic of mimesis, nor a fantasy of total immediacy, but a system of gestures, of the kind that might be made by one body and recognised by another. In the richest of the hitherto uncollected poems, ‘In the Bowels of the Lower Cave’, Langley describe realising that he has mistaken the sound of horse’s hooves, invisible round a corner, for that of water in a ditch:

                                  Now this mistake fixes

the trick and trim of the nimble morning,

 

salutes the truth. Accuracy esteems

error. Both are so smart and tight they pitch

and play together[.]

Langley’s broader conception of ‘accuracy’ grounds it in the act of saluting – just as it is etymologically grounded, as Noel-Tod notes in cura, ‘care’. It allows him a moment of affinity with the Paleolithic painters of the Lascaux caves, whose paintings apparently inspired his mistaken hearing of hooves. The ‘sympathetic magic’ of such ancestors, divorced from the magical naming of Renaissance pastoral, dodges representation in favour of ever more complicated relations between the syntaxes of art and life. ‘Why paint a sorcerer dancing when / you are a sorcerer and can dance?’

*

With an oeuvre as slim as Langley’s, it can be tempting to propose narratives of perfectionism, or of process being celebrated over product: to declare that these poems are the inadequate expression of a rich and exacting life that exists beyond them, and that could only rarely be transmuted into poetry at the risk of killing such life off. This doesn’t seem to me to quite do them justice. I’ve discussed how Langley figured his poetics as one of renunciation, in which verse technique becomes a matter of relinquishing overall control. In the psychoanalytic essays gathered in A Game That Must Be Lost, he found in Stokes a model of resignation, in which the anxiety generated by increasingly ‘ruthless calculation’ is renounced in favour of ‘a situation of no more care, involvement, responsibility’. In an exercise that Langley tried and failed to execute practically at least once in his journals, Stokes invites his readers to imagine being in a beloved place shortly before leaving it for the last time and finding ‘a singular peace’ in no longer needing to tidy or otherwise perfect it. Langley had been dead for just under a year before I read his work for the first time and, in my first reading through the available Carcanet collections, I was moved – as I had been by no other poet – by the realisation that the voice underpinning them was now gone, when it felt so distinctively audible that it seemed still here and could keep producing more. I don’t think it undercuts Noel-Tod’s promise that these poems will ‘endure as long as the language they so lovingly employ’ if I say that one of the effects of reading and writing about Complete Poems, over the last few months, has been to set that sense of the voice to rest, to allow it to have done everything it needed to do.

It has also helped me to reframe and account for another dreamy-uncanny quality of my relationship with Langley: my embarrassing half-belief that he had written me, and that my life was absorbed within the first poem of his that I read, and the journal entry that inspired it, in January 2012. Sometime in July 2010, I was taking a break between volunteering shifts as a tour guide at Notre Dame in Paris in the cathedral’s garden. A dead pigeon was lying in the grass, splayed out as if dead mid-flight and with a predatory chunk taken out of its breast.  My response to seeing it was to recognise that there could be conditions – if I had been encultured differently, or belonged to a different species, or had a longer conception of time – in which a sight like this might not be disgusting but entirely ‘natural’, necessary, or loveable. My immediate response to that recognition was not, quite, a wish to bottomlessly attain or even just to sympathise with such conditions, in some kind of ‘love to love’, as much as to acknowledge that these other ways of seeing and being with it were all viable and co-present. Over twenty years earlier, Langley had watched a fledgling pigeon fall mid-flight and enter its death throes in the streets around St Philibert’s Abbey in Tournus, Burgundy. Going into the abbey, he reflected that the shape of the building, with its ‘pillars and vaults and walls and apertures’ recording and requiring a variety of human movements, could contain the multiplicity of responses to the bird that he couldn’t articulate:

St Philibert’s takes the opening and reaching and holds it permanently, and without the agony and self-reference, and pain. A calm, complete going. The gesture of the fledgling, and that of anything else like that, in here, contained and assimilated, lifted and opened and held.

A satisfactory poem, Langley concludes, would offer a similar response to such a disgustingly particular experience, consolidating and recuperative, ‘the opposite of the fall’, but ‘without losing the blow’. I had wanted to write a poem about my pigeon without knowing that this is why I wanted to write about it – or that the refractions of ‘Jack’s Pigeon’ had come in to do the running, ahead of me and on my behalf. I don’t want to deny the importance of this blow-striking point of connection between my thinking and his, but it no longer feels like it has to have the infinitely lonely status of a founding personal myth for my relationship with these texts. The moment of connection is contained and assimilated as one perspective among many, one particular manifestation of a reading and writing practice which Prynne calls ‘almost a discipline’ and Peter Larkin something like ‘an ascesis’, and which has drawn me into a matching practice of my own. I hope it’s high praise to say that these extraordinary poems now feel as radically ordinary as I want my life to be.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Belloli is writing a PhD on constructions of skill in experimental theatre at the University of Cambridge. His poetry has been published in The Salt Book of Younger Poets.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 8th, 2016.