Sunday, 13 September 2009

Charles Tomlinson: New Collected Poems

Charles Tomlinson is one of the best poets to have written in English over the last 50 years, but his work rarely seems to attract the attention it deserves. A poet who often focuses on observation and description, interrogating the concept of viewpoint, he also writes poems about music, people and history and seems genuinely engaged with left-wing revolutionary politics, which captures his imagination, if not, entirely, his approval.

To mark the publication of his New Collected Poems, I thought I'd write about a poem I came across recently which expresses the tragic but heroic history of revolutionary failure in the 20th century. It's called - appropriately enough - 'Prometheus'. There are three elements in the poem: a Summer storm, the revolutionary piece of music by the Russian composer Scriabin which gives the poem its title and the poet's reflections on what took place in Russia after Prometheus was written.

These elements and the reasonably regular 6 line stanzas make the poem into an Ode. Think of Coleridge's Dejection - an Ode for a comparison.

There are a number 0f features in the poem (personification, periphrasis, juxtaposition) which challenge the reader. In some ways, it is fairly traditional poetry, but it is not accessible like Larkin:

Cymballed fireseeps. Prometheus came down
In more than orchestral flame and Kerensky fled
Before it..........

However, the great men have now departed and we live in a more pluralistic, kinder, less interesting time:

History treads out the music of your dreams
Through blood, and cannot close like this stops. The trees
Continue raining though the rain has ceased
In a cooled world of incessant codas.

Reality is not like the romantic dreams of Scriabin or Lenin who wrote 'the daily prose such poetry prepares for'. Instead of an ending which provides some sort of culmination there is anti-climax and continuation, in the form of the English traditional tune, Greensleeves, played on the bell of an ice cream van: ice cream van circulates the estate
Playing Greensleeves, and at the city's
Stale new frontier even ugliness
Rules with the cruel mercy of solidities.

Not an easy poet to read then ... he doesn't adopt the saloon bar matiness of Larkin, yet in his seriousness and variety, he is in a sense more like a Victorian than the reactionary Larkin, who hated everything modern.

If the New Collected Poems seems to be too demanding a place to begin, try the Poetry Archive site and listen to Tomlinson reading from his work, including the beautiful, moving and restrained poem, entitled, 'The Door'.


  1. Every poem demostrates the love, compassion and good will human being. In fact i read a wonderful poem few time ago. I really loved. That´s why i think this blog is very interesting, most of all for the people who enjoy the poems. I saw
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  2. "Not an easy poet to read" - and that's why I like reading his works: when something seems too easy, I suspect I have not understood anything(or nothing has actually been added to my personal experience as a reader).
    Good reviews on this blog.
    Federico Federici